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.
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.