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.)
This week, Malala Yousafzai became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, which she will share with the Indian child-rights activist Kailash Satyarthi. News of the award was a joy to my heart, as it was for Malala’s millions of well-wishers, who have been following her story ever since the attack on her life (October 2012), which brought her into the global spotlight. As a blogger and education activist, Malala was already a strong voice before the attack, and people (like me) in the West who have a natural interest in Pakistan and the surrounding countries already knew her name.
But a natural interest in Pakistan is still an unusual thing in my part of the world, and I was in a very small minority of Americans who knew of Malala Yousafzai before she was shot. It is ironic that she should have to come so close to death before the rest of the world could get to know her--but in truth that is not surprising. What makes any person famous? There is always a combination of genuine substance and a stroke of luck.
The crack of the bullet focused the world’s attention on Malala--and it is to the world’s credit that we all fell in love with her. As she recovered and regained her voice, the world got to meet the girl who had already begun her journey as an activist years before. The only difference was that now she had a much larger audience to speak to. And her voice rings clearly whenever she speaks.
The far deeper irony, however, is her reception in Pakistan itself. Many Pakistanis are delighted to celebrate with Malala and feel proud for their nation to be honored in this way. But many others--and it’s impossible to say what percentage, but it is undoubtedly significant--are opposed to Malala, some simply believing that she is undeserving, and others brewing elaborate conspiracy theories purporting that Malala is a fiction created by the West with some intention of controlling Pakistani minds and pocketbooks. (How on earth could that goal be accomplished? And why? I have no idea.)
To all those in Pakistan who dislike Malala, I urge you to realize what a powerful and positive symbol she is for the world. Please remember that we in the West (especially we in America) do not have a broad knowledge of Pakistan--in fact, many Americans are almost completely ignorant of Pakistani history, and most know very little about Islam as well. That is not because of hatred--it is just lack of awareness. We tend to need large events to prompt us to look outside of ourselves and learn about others. That is our weakness, but it is an area where we can become stronger. People like Malala teach the Western world about the East, about the diversity of Pakistani culture, and about Islam.
And isn’t Malala a wonderful example of a strong, intelligent, modest, faithful Muslim girl, devoted to her Swati homeland? I can’t think of a better individual for the West to get to know.
The West loves Malala because of her essence--her humanity and her mission; and now that we love her essence, it becomes easier for us to love her context. Far more people will now be inspired to learn about the Swat valley, to learn about Pashtoon culture, to learn about Pakistan, to learn about Islam. Because Malala has given us a gateway of entrance--she bridges the gap between us.
She invites us to say along with her, “I am Malala.”
We can all start to imagine life from her perspective. And that willingness to identify with others is what creates a pathway for peace and progress.
Isn’t that a beautiful thing?
The poetry of these words from The Tempest will ring familiar to most readers, even those not well versed in Shakespeare:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't!"
It is the amazement of Miranda, daughter of the sorceror Prospero, upon seeing a world beyond the narrow island where she has spent all her life thus far.
But her father's quiet response is also important:
"'Tis new to thee."
I have always identified with the character of Miranda, who, like me, grew up in an isolated, well-protected, and beautiful place--the tiny college town where I grew up is considered by many to be enchanted, not unlike Miranda's distant island. It was in many ways a charmed upbringing, especially in my earlier childhood. But as I became a teenager, I became more disheartened with the narrowness of my world and the sameness of my surroundings. When I left home for university (we call it college, but it's what the rest of the world would call university), I went relatively far -- 800 miles -- and began discovering a "brave new world." I wrote my college entrance essay on Miranda, even.
I was reminded of this expression of wonder and newness when I came upon the globe in the photograph--a globe which has a magical quality to it, but more importantly is tilted to the side of the world that I am only now discovering in my current phase of life.
And there is a beautiful irony in it all, too. To me, this world is "new" -- but Prospero reminds me gently, "'Tis new to thee." Meaning, it is not new at all -- in fact, this world is ancient, more ancient than anything I have known thus far, with a deeper history than anything I have encountered in my own young nation, or even in my travels to Europe. The newness comes from my own eyes.
But I have been learning about South Asia now for a few years, non-stop, with voracious curiosity. I have discovered many dark and dismal sides of my new world as well. But I am drawn on in endless fascination. And it still feels new, and it still glows for me.
I do not wish to glorify Hamas, and I also don't want to condemn Israel as a nation of demons. The powers at play are not black and white. It's not good guys versus bad guys. I can't pretend to have a solid grasp on the intricate network of alliances, terror groups, supply chains, hatreds and allegiances of all sorts that govern our world and that have their hub in the super-charged region of the Middle East. Conspiracy theories abound, and some of them may be justified -- but there is little sense in tackling those issues when the surface-level events are as problematic as they are. The conflict in Gaza has brought out the worst in human nature as the Israeli government has continued to take innocent lives with no visible remorse.
As an American, I hoped to see my leaders, whom I support, take a strong role in promoting peace and recognizing human suffering. Despite the US's historical ties with Israel, I had hopes until quite recently that the US government would be capable of opposing its ally's unconscionable actions. Remarks by Pres. Obama and Secretary Kerry today, however, have dashed those hopes. My social media feeds have witnessed a global chorus of pained outrage that the US could point a finger at Hamas over the capture of one Israeli soldier when the death toll in Gaza surpasses 1400, mostly civilians, and nearly half a million citizens have been displaced. (Those figures are the current BBC estimates as of today.) Further and deeper outrage that the US could re-supply Israel's munitions so that they could continue in their destruction.
My own reaction is the same as that of my friends around the world. The US government's logic in supporting pure destruction, and its failure to recognize the tragedy of thousands of Palestinians in need, is a deep affront to my own conscience as well as that of the world. To be honest, I am stunned that my own government could be this outwardly heartless. The President is generally careful to include a line of sympathy for Palestinian civilians killed in his various statements, but he pads it with pro-Israel rhetoric and reduces the lives of Palestinians to a weak after-thought. The resulting effect is worse than insulting -- America is not only portrayed as greedy and self-interested in supporting its ally, but as callous and completely unmoved by human tragedy. How can I blame friends around the world who harbor anti-American sentiments after seeing this behavior?
A large part of my purpose in writing this blog entry is to show my friends around the world that America is broader and deeper than its government's policies, and that many of us stand in support of our fellow human beings in Palestine. Many of my friends around the world are under the impression that all Americans are pro-Israel and anti-Palestine. Given our government's policies, I can certainly understand why they would think so. But the American populace is vast and varied in its political outlook. There is clearly a very firm core of Zionism here that is supporting Israel in both material and psychological means. But there are many Americans, including Jewish Americans, who see the other side of this conflict. I am not alone in my views.
The most frightening aspect of the Gaza tragedy as it affects the world at large is its ability to provoke hatred and narrow minds. Outrage is essential -- but all too often that outrage turns to hatred. Outrage must never be allowed to prevail over humanitarian understanding. So often I see righteous indignation turn sour and end in the demonization of the opponent. Anti-semitism is on the rise around the world. Pain over atrocities turns quickly into hatred for hatred's sake.
To all who respond to pain by feeling hatred -- of course I understand what you are feeling. But please remember that it was hatred that caused your pain, too. It is not the solution.
Hatred mobilizes armies, it arms militants, it fuels terrorists and suicide bombers. We have to look to a different emotional fuel now. Love and compassion have to prevail to weaken self-interest and greed. Compassion is the only way to open the blocked arteries of global conscience. Please join me in this effort, wherever you are.
What happened to the Dancing Girl?
It's a question within a question and a story within a story -- because actually there are two dancing girls. One of them is Sambara, from the Indus River Valley of 5000 years ago, immortalized in the shape of a small figurine. The other is me. The stories are multiple and interconnected: what happened to her, what happened to me, and how we came together.
But before I can explain what happened to this dancer -- me -- I must ask a broader question: what happened to dance itself in my culture? Which is to say, white American Protestant (Christian) culture. I won't be so dramatic as to say that we have lost dance, but we have hidden it--pushed it into the shadows, ignored it, and all but forgotten it in our daily lives. Dance, for us stereotypically repressed Protestants, is something can happen only within very specific arenas, and at very specific times. It can happen on stage, in the context of a young girl's ballet recital or a musical number in a Broadway show. Or it can happen in fraternity-style parties, formless and frenetic, typically requiring a fair amount of alcohol to loosen the inhibitions of self-conscious partiers. And even in these sanctioned situations, actual dancing tends to involve a lot of timidity and trepidation.
On the whole, dance is something that makes us nervous.
Children do not have this inhibition against dance. I can remember a phase in my own early childhood in which I demanded that I be dressed in skirts every day so that I could twirl and bop around to my heart's content. And like many of my peers I went to ballet classes and enjoyed the stylized movements and the opportunity to perform in the yearly recital. But that childhood freedom to dance soon met with the challenges and hindrances of adolescence.
As the young ballerina grows into an anxious teenager, she tends to stop going to ballet classes and try to blend in with her peers. (Here I am abstracting my own experience into the third person, but the following sketch is essentially autobiographical.) The graceful gliding of ballet would stand out painfully among the brooding adolescents, so she intentionally forgets the dancer's way of thinking. She gets to relive the excitement of choreography in a very contained way if she participates in any musical theater -- opportunities for which are relatively abundant in high school and college but dwindle sharply after that. The college girl exchanges theater dancing for the occasional awkward twisting and jiggling on the frat-party dance floor, and then, after graduation, all but abandons the entire notion of dance for the years to come. If the girl is not interested in "clubbing" (as I am not), dancing then only re-emerges at weddings, where it takes essentially the same form as it did back at the frat parties, with all the associated discomforts and intoxications.
The French Impressionist Edgar Degas is known for his paintings and sculptures of young ballet dancers--all of whom are just shy of that age when dance becomes uncomfortable. His bronze statue of a "little fourteen-year-old dancer" is already teetering on the edge of maturity, however, and all its associated anxieties. Her feet gracefully mark a carefully learned ballet position, but her shoulders slope backwards uncertainly, and her face--well, perhaps it is simply a dreamy or absent expression, but to me it appears to bear a shadow of the kind of anxieties that teen years are certain to bring. This is not an academically researched hypothesis, but what I am seeing in Degas is a fascination with dancers precisely at this turning point that I can recall in my own life--the moment in which dancing goes from being routine, comfortable, natural, to being self-conscious and inhibited.
It would not be fair to say that we have done away with dance entirely. We have an idea of dance, even an ideal of what it should be -- but we rarely embody it. [I have not yet done any research on this topic, but I expect there are probably scores of books about the uncomfortable relationship that my cultural compatriots have with dance. If anyone reading this post would like to suggest any good articles for me, please do comment!] I can't even say that dance is stigmatized -- because I don't think that this ever happens on a conscious level. We don't actually dislike dance. But still we don't do it. Or, we do it so rarely that it seems alien to us when it finally becomes time to dance. At some point--and probably that point is adolescence--we un-learn dance.
In recent years a few things have made me particularly aware of the alienation of dance within my native culture. I will cite here two examples. The first is Bollywood cinema, in which dance is not only present but essential. One especially vivid instance is a scene in the movie Lagaan, in which a whole village, plagued by drought, falls into the sway of a rain dance. The scene is intricately filmed and must have been a huge undertaking from the perspective of cinematography and choreography. But what makes it so touching is actually its simplicity. The villagers -- people of all ages, shapes, and sizes -- dance with a natural rhythm that seems no more difficult than walking. To my Western eyes, it seems as if all these people, when they were children, had not only learned to crawl and then walk, but then advanced just one more phase into a basic and perfectly self-evident form of dance. Each person has his own personality and ability--just the way a person's walking gait is always individual--but the basic movements of the dance remain consistent throughout the whole group. The music, a translucent and minimalistic piece by A. R. Rahman, underscores the sense of unity. The texture of the music is almost nothing more than what is needed to dance with. It is a structure and a surface on which a whole village can dance, with a single melody that is passed seamlessly among the characters, like a colored ribbon weaving its way around the scene. Musical numbers within Western theater and films, when it is done well, can have a similar kind of effervescence--but it is very rare to find an example of group dancing in Western that feels so uninhibited and natural. The Lagaan rain dance, despite all the glorious artifice that must have been required to coordinate it, seems to spring forth from a source deep within the people themselves.
My second example is one closer to my own home. Growing up where I did, I might have easily assumed that dance was a rather distant phenomenon for all Americans--but I would have been mistaken. Outside of mainstream white Protestant America, dance is much more vibrant and alive. I came to see this quite distinctly when my husband and I attended a Jewish wedding for the first time--a couple years ago. Andrew and I had both enjoyed the musicality of the ceremony, which involved a lot of traditional chanting in Hebrew. To our amazement, the entire (Jewish portion of) the congregation knew, without any written cues, what to sing and when to sing. But we were stunned when, a short time after the ceremony, the married couple was presented to the assembled guests at the reception, and the Hora was announced. We were both vaguely familiar with the word "Hora" (a traditional Jewish circle dance) and we recognized the tune that was struck up by the wedding band. But we were amazed by the sudden energy that transformed the crowd in this moment. Within seconds this scattered bunch of people took on a shape and a trajectory and a thrilling energy. We ourselves were soon swept up into these concentric circles and revolving with the others. Andrew and I were quickly separated by the dance (I think the circles may have been gender-segregated) and found ourselves holding hands with strangers--and feeling completely welcomed by them. We mimicked their steps as best we could--which was not very well--but it didn't matter that we were new to it. We had a marvelous time. Driving back home that night we kept repeating our amazement to one another that a group dance like that could feel so warm and fun and uninhibited. And we kept asking -- why didn't we grow up with this kind of dancing, too?
But now I must interrupt my own reminiscences to introduce the original Dancing Girl -- Sambara of Moenjo-Daro. We know her as a bronze figurine, only 10 cm tall, and 5,000 years old. Her original stands in a museum in New Delhi, but her replicas are scattered widely about her home province of Sindh, and one of them now adorns the 'Indus Valley shelf' of my display cabinet. Along with several other iconic relics, the Dancing Now, it is not absolutely certain that Sambara (the name with which my Sindhi friends refer to her) is actually dancing. And she may not just be a 'girl who dances' but rather a "dancing girl" in the figurative sense. (Incidentally I was only a bit surprised to see that the original statuette is rather more anatomically detailed than my replica version, which has been ever so slightly censored. The original Sambara bears her body with no inhibition whatsoever.) But whether or not she is actually dancing, Sambara seems to embody the spirit of dance. Her long arms are positioned with striking confidence, and her legs seem to be bending to a beat. Her left arm is fully decorated with bangles of the sort that the women of the Thar desert still wear even today, and which I myself have had the honor of receiving (see my portrait at the top of this page). Indeed, those bangles constitute the majority of her clothing. Her state of undress, however, is less important than her attitude of confidence. Whatever it is she is doing, we can sense that she is doing it without inhibition. She is displaying herself, and she is comfortable with that.
That bodily self-confidence is the main difference, to my eyes, between Sambara and Degas's bronze dancer. Both girls have thoughtful faces, but the thoughts are quite different. Sambara is thinking about her dance--she appears ready to dance, indeed, seems already moving. But what about Degas's danseuse? Her feet are in position, as if on instinct. But her sloped shoulders and absently upturned face suggest that her mind is somewhere else completely. She is thinking about everything in her life that isn't dance. She is growing and becoming an adolescent and adapting to the changing world around her. And this is not a bad thing. She is becoming introspective -- she may be developing a complex and beautiful personality. But at the same time: she is getting ready to abandon the dance shoes for something more practical. She is moving away from the dance floor. She is beginning to unlearn her dance.
Sambara might also develop a complex personality that involves a lot more than just dancing. She does not look like a simple-minded girl. But the difference is that I do not see her giving up her dance as she continues with her life. Dancing will simply be a part of her life. Like it is for the villagers in Lagaan, dancing is just a breath away from walking. Just another natural state of being.
Now, I don't mean to bemoan the lack of dance in my life for the last couple of decades too dramatically. Because all is not lost. Dance does not play as large a role in my native culture as I wish it did -- but opportunities for dancing do exist, and I am taking advantage of them. I have not returned to the dance form of my childhood (ballet), but instead to a different classical dance -- kathak, which originates in northern India. It is my good fortune that we have here a wonderful teacher of kathak from Calcutta, Pallabi Chakravorty. I had taken her class briefly as a college student, but at the time did not devote enough of my consciousness toward absorbing it. But I must have tucked my interest in kathak away somewhere in my mind, because recently I felt the urge to try it again. And fortunately Pallabi allowed me to rejoin the class.
It has been a very long hiatus for me: twenty years. I left dance in my pre-adolescence at age 11, and have returned to it at age 31. It is a welcome return for me. Kathak is a fascinating dance form and deserves a separate post of its own -- so I will save that for another date (soon, I hope). For the moment, I will just say that learning about kathak has not only reconnected me with my inner drive to dance, but has also given me another window onto my adoptive (south Asian) culture. The piece that our class is preparing for our spring recital is based on traditional Hindu themes, specifically Krishna and his Gopinis (his young female adorers), and the springtime festival of Holi. Our piece concludes with a circle dance of the sort associated with Krishna and Holi. It feels especially meaningful to do a circle dance, as this resonates with the joyous Hora and many other archetypical ideas of the communal experience of dance (such as the Picasso image above, a print of which hung on the walls of my childhood home, or Matisse's iconic painting entitled simply "La Danse").
So: the dancer within me has been rediscovered. The last part of this story is the "rediscovery" of Sambara. By which I mean: the way in which Sambara has made her way into my home. She is of course a native of Moenjo Daro, and thus shares her homeland with my adoptive Sindhi family, the Sangis. So when my adorable Sindhi papa Saeed was planning a surprise package of gifts to send me, he wanted to include a replica of Sambara. That package, however, was stopped at customs in Dubai, where an over-zealous security person confiscated it, thinking it might be an original. (Clearly he was not familiar with the anatomy of the original Sambara.) The box that arrived on my doorstep contained many other Sindhi treasures, but no Dancing Girl. When papa Saeed discovered the issue he rapidly devised another surprise plan. He packed up another Sambara replica among yet another set of delightful Sindhi treasures (clothes and jewelry) and asked his friend, who was heading to a conference in Washington, D.C., to pack them in his luggage. His friend kindly mailed them to me from there, thus avoiding the problem of misguided customs officials. Just last week this surprise package arrived on my porch. And now my own Sindhi Sambara lives in my display cupboard, along with my other Moenjo Daro souvenirs (see my earlier post "Sindh" for a pic of those).
And, I think, she has arrived at the perfect time.
Pacing left and right in front of a flashing expanse of video screen, his ear fitted with a smart little microphone, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari announced the birth of the Sindh Festival. This moment in mid-December of 2013 marks one of the most significant steps that this young politician, heir to one of the most significant and controversial political families in Pakistan's history, has yet taken towards creating a persona that is distinct from his predecessors. He and sister Bakhtawar had devised a TED-talk style multimedia lecture, demonstrating that they, like their generation in general, are fluent with technology. But the most memorable media projection appeared not on the big screen, but rather emblazoned on BBZ's person. In a winsome if sheepish gesture, he flung open what had seemed to be a black button-down shirt to reveal the Super-Sindh logo underneath. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Sindh Fest, 2014," he grinned. And I challenge anyone to watch this announcement without smiling along with BBZ--no matter what you think of his family's politics.
This was one bandwagon that I was very quick to hop on. That is surprising in itself, as I am normally loath to do anything "fashionable," and attention-grabbing efforts aimed at the masses usually leave me somewhere on the path between uninterested and revolted. Even here I reserve a pinch of suspicion and jadedness -- but not much. I'll admit being dazzled and surprised by Bilawal's presentation. And I'm aware that a move like this is intended to surprise and dazzle--and that winsome dazzling is often a mask to hide a multitude of faults. Thus I shall be cautious not to speak only through that sense of elation that I felt when a potential world leader stepped onto the stage and made a beacon of his Sindhi heritage to project to the world. Clearly, however, I am still elated and inspired by this beacon of Super-Sindh, and am eagerly projecting it myself as far as I possibly can. Perhaps some of this can be simply explained in that that my own quirky sensibilities seem to be very much in tune with those of the Bhutto-Zardari kids. Looking deeper than that, however, I see shining from within these ingenious media gimmicks a lot of thought, humanity, and hope.
Above: Bilawal B-Z modeling his logos. Critics say he is trivializing Sindhi and Pakistani culture. I say he is simply inhabiting that culture in new way, with humor and zest. In my opinion, both are delightful.
I approach this topic with a great deal of caution -- largely because I feel that this effort will have some significance for the future of my favorite country (Pakistan) and adoptive province (Sindh). On the surface, this is just a Festival, and an "apolitical" one as BBZ has tried to make clear. But nothing is that simple in Pakistan. And nothing is "apolitical."
I am also in no great danger of being trapped in some sort of Bhutto Bubble, seeing a Pakistan only through the eyes of Benazir-worshippers or PPP cronies. As an outsider I am relatively free of influences from over here--Americans in general are tragically under-informed about Pakistan, and the only positive result of that is a relative lack of bias. I myself have been discovering Pakistan through many diverse lenses. My friends in Pakistan and in Sindh come from all parts of the political spectrum and class system, and all are vocal about their beliefs. And I am inherently (though respectfully) skeptical about every source of information I hear; I always bear in mind that even my most trusted friends and teachers speak from a perspective that might clash with another's genuine reality. So I do my best to listen to all and learn from all. My own views are crystalizing to some extent, but they will never be immutable. Even when I find something worth supporting--especially then--I feel it my duty to consider its negative impact very seriously.
From its first announcement, the Sindh Festival and Bilawal himself have been subjected to criticism of all sorts -- sometimes deserved, sometimes exaggerated, sometimes farcical. The topic has more than once fueled lively debate on my Facebook timeline. In the midst of this I have found myself on numerous occasions functioning as a defender of both BBZ and his Festival -- which has actually taken me by surprise. For quite some time I had attempted to stay neutral when it came to Pakistani politics, hesitant to express a view on a country that is not my own and potentially ruffle feathers of people I would prefer not to provoke. But Bilawal's own fearlessness has given me some new courage in speaking out politically. I still seek to promote open and free dialogue among my friends of widely differing viewpoints -- but I am no longer hesitant to share my own. And I support the causes that Bilawal has begun to champion, especially the promotion of a unified Pakistani identity that is capable of overcoming extremism.
That particular identity is very close to my heart. Because although my friends in Pakistan do come from many backgrounds socially and politically, there is a great spirit that unites them all -- an intellectual curiosity and depth of emotion that is present in all of them. (This includes that contingent of my friends who despise the very notion of Pakistan and wish to separate; although they will not be pleased with my characterization, they also share in this "Pakistani" spirit.) So: I personally have come to know this identity, in the course of friendships, debates, heart-to-heart talks, friendly and unfriendly encounters. I have had the privilege of meeting this Pakistan that is full of color, hope, and love.
But the wider world has not had that same chance. A sound bite advertising the British-Asian comedy series "Citizen Khan" contained a one-liner that I loved. "Did you hear the news last night?" asks the character of Mr. Khan, an energetic Pakistani British immigrant, with a satisfied grin in his voice. "SEVEN TIMES they mentioned Pakistan, na?! ... Twice, in a good way!!"
Pakistani people are used to bad news; the rest of the world is used to hearing bad news from Pakistan. But Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is reminding us all -- Pakistan and the world -- that the news is NOT all bad.
And the particular bit of 'good news' that BBZ has latched onto is very significant: Sindhi culture. This is not without controversy, as many of his critics feel that he is himself "not Sindhi enough," especially because he is not at home with the Sindhi language. But I implore such critics to take a step back and realize the value of a politician who launches his career from this particular platform. Like all politicians, Bilawal has to find a way to generate excitement and get noticed; he has to show that he has a vision of his country, and that he understands what matters to the nation at its core. By choosing Sindhi culture as a starting place, Bilawal shines a spotlight on the deepest treasure that Pakistan has to offer, which is the ancient cultural heritage of the Indus Valley.
Although it could potentially be dismissed a 'feel-good' move for a politician to make, BBZ must have known also that his project would be a riven with difficulties in setting an appropriate tone. As always it is impossible to please everyone, but the greatest irony of the Sindh Festival has been the degree of scorn it has elicited from many Sindhi individuals (including a good number of my own respected friends--and I fully anticipate a resurgence of debate on this topic after they have read this post!).
The opening ceremony especially, staged on the ancient ruins of Mohenjo Daro, provoked outrage on a number of counts before, during, and after it actually happened. A great deal of concern was raised when construction began on the stage site, with pictures spreading around Facebook of lights and poles and batteries being hauled around those dusty but hallowed walls. Much of this uproar served a very good purpose--to give a voice toward the protection of a great treasure of human history. A few disparate voices of reason, however, pointed out that many other ancient sites (the Acropolis, the Pyramids, etc) have been co-opted for reasons far less felicitous than this one, with crowds larger than this private event would have, without provoking the general horror of the concerned public. I would like to add to this picture that the Acropolis and the Pyramids are far more recognizable on a global scale than Mohenjo Daro is -- and that lighting it up in bright colors, though gaudy, is not a bad way to bring it some new attention. Meanwhile BBZ and his team responded in detail to preservationists' concerns, cooling most of the inflamed emotions against the use of the site.
Potential scuffing to Mohenjo Daro was only one of the sources of Sindhi outrage over the festival, however. Another was the use of Urdu and English instead of Sindhi. Also the apparent lack of authentic Sindhi music and culture in the opening ceremony. And the apparent snubbing of some Sindhi musicians who attempted to attend the opening ceremony (though this point stands in some tension with the concern over the use of the site: because it was made clear that the guest list for the event was limited, ALL non-invitees were of course turned away--even if they happened to be authentic Sindhi musicians). Many Sindhi feelings were bruised to see that the Festival--particularly the opening ceremony--did not accurately portray THEIR Sindh.
And I do have sympathy for that feeling. It is painful to see something that you love be watered down to make it palatable for a mass audience. Absolutely, a sense of irritation is inevitable. But we have to remember that the purpose of the Sindh Festival was not to put Sindhi culture on display for other Sindhis, who already know how to appreciate it. This had to be the lighter version, in order to make it possible for people outside of Sindh (not only in Pakistan but in the wider world) to begin to be able to appreciate what the culture has to offer. Sindhi people already know how wonderful Sindhi culture is, and they should continue to celebrate it in authentic, Sindhi ways. But those ways cannot easily project their message around the globe. Bilawal B-Z and his ingenious media team have begun packaging a palatable and lovable taste of Sindh in a way that can be exported. It is necessarily commercial. But although it cannot represent the true palette of colors and flavors that Sindh has to offer, it does not do any harm to Sindh. It does not take away any of that ancient treasure. Sindhis do not need to feel that their heritage has been assaulted by this incomplete representation. It must be remembered that, for example, many people outside of Pakistan have never seen an ajrak; and obviously they do not know the deep and spiritual significance of that cloth to Sindhi people. Is it not better for those ancient patterns to begin to enter global consciousness by this means than never to be seen at all? Is it not better for Mohenjo Daro to be seen around the world, lit up with high voltage colors, than never to be thought of at all?
Among the many interesting debates I have led on this topic with my Facebook friends, some of the most productive were with my friend Bahar Ali Wassan, whose exuberant personality and joyous spirit I find to be quintessential examples of the true spirit of Sindh. At first he had been optimistic about the idea despite his disillusionment with the PPP, but all such optimism dissolved upon the opening ceremony, which left him feeling alienated and embittered due to what he felt was an insulting misrepresentation of his culture. Nonetheless he chose to keep an open mind, and he attended the Festival event held in his city of Hyderabad, a camel and horse show and a crafts fair. Thankfully he found much more of his OWN Sindh to be present at this event than had been in the opening Festival. He and a few of his Sindhi buddies attended with open hearts and had a great time, which they documented in a series of wonderful photographs (click here to see the whole album).
I do not wish to imply that Bahar was completely won over to the point of now being a vocal supporter of the Festival. His review on the whole remains a mixed one. But he was able to recognize a lot of good in the effort, and his own positive spirit contributes to the positive vibe of the Festival on the whole. The event he attended allowed some of his own Sindhi passion to manifest in a way that could be shared with the wider world. Through him we can see that shining beacon of culture that is at the heart of this endeavor.
There are many more issues I could address here; this is fertile territory. The person of Bilawal himself deserves a lot more attention, and I suspect that I shall write about him again in the future. I want to make clear that I am not affiliated with him or with the PPP in any way, and am not an explicit supporter of the PPP or any other Pakistani party. I do harbor some reservations concerning dynastic politics--Bilawal is in essence a prince, and his experience of Pakistan is in many ways removed from that of the average Pakistani. I cannot claim to know if he will be a good leader for the party or for Sindh or for Pakistan. I am not good at making those kinds of predictions anyway.
But I am excited about the potential of Bilawal B-Z's leadership. He has made a daring entrance onto the political scene, and his voice is clear, courageous, intelligent, ironic, and unabashedly quirky. I am not put off by his inherited charisma. Charisma is a form of capital like any other -- and this is a necessary tool for any leader hoping to lead a country as complex and troubled as Pakistan. He still has to prove himself in many ways. The Sindh Festival is the first chapter of a biography which will no doubt be a page-turner. I hope that subsequent chapters will contain much more good news for Sindh and for Pakistan.
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...
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.