Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Elusive Mayor of Hyderabad

“Write,” my cousin Fayaz told me on the way home from Hyderabad. It has become his mantra ever since, as he has watched me chase experiences that others consider dangerous or boring. So now I am.

Last week, the Mayor of Karachi arranged for me to see the Mayor of Hyderabad, a smaller city two hours north. He told me to take someone with me, meaning “take a man with you because it is not safe for a girl on her own.” It’s an idea I am inclined to defy, but I accept it now after several experiences of watching men try to deal with my driver instead of me, out of respect, and translating my assertiveness as either foreign or inappropriate. Whether logical or not, in a lawless society where everything comes down to strength, status, and money, men are symbols of protection.

My family has accepted my crazy adventures, but when I suggested taking Fayaz along, my aunt put her foot down. Politics is perceived as dangerous and dirty here, particularly the concerned political party. But on the basis of the Mayor of Karachi’s good reputation, my uncle overruled her. Still, my aunt couldn’t sleep and cried all morning as our car waited outside.

The meeting never happened. As we neared Hyderabad, the driver informed us that he did not know where he was supposed to go, where the Mayor’s office or residence were, and if he was at either. Turns out he was at neither. So much for local coordination.

Fortunately, I had a back-up plan. My best friend, Salma, had family in a nearby village. She was raised in California, but her parents were originally zamindars (landlords) in Pakistan. Most rural land in Pakistan is held according to a feudal system, which was abolished in India and Bangladesh. But feudals in Pakistan today are not necessarily backwards—they live in cities, travel abroad, become actors, hold corporate jobs, and dominate the legislature.

Thanks to Salma’s family, Hyderabad turned out to be a more interesting cultural than political experience. Her mom and cousin, Farhan, took me to a vice mayor’s home, a relative. But as soon as I entered, the boys were directed to a receiving room, built apart from the house, while I was ushered to a bedroom in the house with the women. I had flashbacks to the Ottoman palaces I had seen in Turkey—was I in a harem??

The women started by commenting on how I wouldn’t “sit” properly. Apparently, I wasn’t supposed to sit at all, but lie down on the charpai. They commented that I wouldn’t eat properly. They worried that I wasn’t comfortable and brought a tray so I could lie down and eat at the same time. They covered me with a blanket. Salma’s mother was proudly describing her married daughters and their husbands’ occupations, trailing off when she got to unmarried Salma (no more discussion of Salma, her life, or her work). I got desperate. I texted the Mayor of Karachi: Mayor of Hyderabad is no-show. What is up?

That got things moving. A deputy official called and said he was on his way. Two hours later, I was in the men’s reception room. But when the deputy showed up, he balked at the door. He had talked to me so casually on the phone, but as soon as he saw me and two other women, with men, in the living room, he seemed flustered. But he had nowhere else to go, and was there to meet with me, so he came in.

The discussion was friendly, but perfunctory. He put me on the phone with a female staff member (pregnant he pointed out) and advised I stay in touch with her.

After a big production about how we wouldn’t stay for lunch and a gifting of traditional Sindhi cloth, we got out of there. We went to KFC instead. Yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken.

“Did you notice the people waiting at the gate the whole time?” Salma’s cousin, Farhan, asked me at KFC. I thought they were drivers or staff. “No, they were waiting to meet the vice mayor. Here, the longer you make people wait, the more important you are.” After years of dealing with constituents in the U.S. Senate, it bothers me when I see elected Pakistani officials unable or unwilling to handle their constituents.

My Pakistani friends laughed at my frustration. At least now you know how it works here, they said. The relative sophistication of the Karachi city government disappears quickly in the interior, as do western clothing and mixed company, in favor of chadors and zenanas (South Asian harem). I thought that the northwest was Pakistan’s most conservative region, where women are covered and segregated, but the situation is similar just two hours north of Karachi. But if Karachi can advance, Hyderabad can too, although it will likely take aggressive development and a new generation of leaders who are ready to see things change.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas in Karachi

Five years ago on Christmas, I was at a bowling alley in Karachi and saw a boy dressed like Santa Clause walking around, which I thought was weird. Then my friend turned to me, "Merry Christmas! It must be party time in the States, huh?"

“Umm…” I had to think for a second. Coming from the U.S., I was an automatic expert on American culture, but I had never actually celebrated Christmas in the States. No Muslim-American I knew celebrated Christmas—the ultimate Christian holiday. “It’s actually more of a family holiday,” I informed him.

Well, turns out Pakistanis don’t really care for the truth about Christmas because, in this Taliban-plagued, 95% Muslim country, Christmas is party time. I was surprised enough when I saw Santa at the mall last week, thronged with Pakistani children. Then my Pashtun driver had the radio on "Jingle Bells." I looked outside and a street vendor was selling Santa caps.

My cousin commented that his Facebook feed was full of "Merry Christmas!" statuses-- more than any other holiday including Eid and Diwali-- and most of his friends have never been to the States.

Then I heard about Christmas parties. Of course, I had to go. The first place we went could have been on TV, which is actually my best evidence of what Christmas looks like—a huge, long table full of classic Christmas dishes, dimly lit, carols on CD, a tree full of ornaments, and Secret Santa. Then we went to a Christmas house party, where all the girls were dressed in red and wearing Santa caps.

So after years of, like many Muslim-Americans, secretly loving Christmas but always feeling a little left out, I finally celebrated it—in Pakistan. But the Christmas spirit here is about more than Santa and ornaments, it’s also the perfect reminder of Pakistan's progressive spirit.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Back in Karachi

I’m back in Karachi. I’ve missed it a lot since I left in August. But this time I’m not seeking constant travel and adventure like before, I’m more curious about Karachi itself and what it’s like to live here.

It was hard to leave Pakistan this summer. Even when I got homesick, it was because I was in Lahore and missed Karachi (sorry Lahoris but Karachi rocks). I ended up extending my trip by months and weeks. I didn’t book my ticket till the day before I had to leave, or risk being disowned by my parents.

You would think my parents would love that I wanted to be in Pakistan. After all, they did try to move here when I was nine, in an attempt to save me and my siblings from becoming “typical American teenagers.” But we moved back to the U.S. because security was so bad (early 1990s political violence) and now Pakistan more or less freaks them out like it would any American parent.

My friend Zaineb from New York City was in a similar situation. When the banking industry nosedived, she randomly decided to spend the summer in Pakistan. She ended up loving it so much she had “World War III” with her parents to convince them to let her stay here for good. By the end of the summer, both our parents were calling us and telling us Pakistan was dangerous while we rolled our eyes and haggled for extra weeks and days.

But I’m back now and things are different this time—I’m used to the security situation, having a driver, and wearing kameez shalwar. I’m still a wide-eyed American as far as my family is concerned, but to me things feel more familiar than foreign. Now I’m just curious to see how this month turns out: was the Karachi I discovered just a summer illusion or a city to live, work, and love like any other city in the world, and just one great untold story?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Pakistani Souvenirs: Where to Find Them

Pakistan is not exactly a tourist destination (thank you U.S. travel warnings since forever), so it’s tough to know where to go to find souvenirs and gifts. But with the art and political culture opening up, there is a lot of cool stuff around.

This is a list of shops and spots I discovered in Karachi. It should come in handy for those who end up there, including the flood of expats and their kids on ritual family visits during wedding season.

1. Daku (Bandit).

What: Politically-conscious t-shirts.
My Find: A t-shirt with a picture of U.S. drones falling on a village. The back says Stop Bombing My Country.”
Location: Zamzama. The store is closed for expansion but t-shirts are being sold out of Muneeb Nawaz at the end of the “Pizza Hut gully (lane).”

2. Gulabo.

What: Truck Art-inspired everything.
My Find: A pink canvas handbag with large Urdu script: Danger. Look, but with Love. (Yes, hopeful drivers do sprawl that on their trucks and buses.)
Location: Zamzama. At end of lane with Yellow, opposite Pizza Hut gully. They have a bigger store somewhere that you can ask about.

3. I ª KHI t-shirts. A rip-off of I ª NYC.

Where: Yellow and Deepak Parwani in Zamzama have some. Or become a fan on Facebook.
Why: These t-shirts are part of the famous city-wide graffiti campaign.

4. Citizens Archive Project.

What: Clever, historically-inspired mugs, postcards, and t-shirts. Photos here.
My Find: A mug that reads (one side): “What Hollywood icon once said, ‘You’re not famous till they can spell your name in KARACHI?' Other side: Humphrey Bogart.
Location: Defense. Visit Facebook for updated contact details.

5. Great, cheap souvenirs without going to a bazaar.

What: Jewelry, souvenir trucks and rickshaws, home decoration.
My Find: Small, embroidered pillows from Afghanistan.
Location: An Afghan guy has a stand on the ground floor of Park Towers.

6. Caravan.

Why: Run by a Lahore-based NGO.
Proceeds benefit village handicraft-workers.
What: Candles, bags, stationary.
Location: Zamzama, next to Ego.

7. Al Falah, Village Embroidery Center.

Contact: Call 021 5804707 or try their website.

8. Hunar-e-Zan, A Project of Roots for Equity.

What: Handicrafts.
Location: Shop 167 at Gulf Bazaar.
Contact: Call 021 498 4409.

9. Itwar Bazaar!

What: Sunday market.
Why: Fun place to walk around, and you never know what you will find, including smuggled or somehow-damaged factory goods from China.
My find: Wall hangings, and a new pair of my favorite shoes (sold at Macy’s a few years ago)!
Location: Go with a local.

And to experience a bit of Karachi’s cosmopolitan culture while you are there, don’t forget to check out

Feel free to add tips or clarifications. I would love to hear about other finds so I can check them out next time I’m there.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dear Sir

Pakistan has become more progressive, with women much more visible in schools, workplaces, and on the street, but everyone who matters is still assumed to be a man. I was once in a position where I received many job applications from Pakistan. They were almost always addressed, “Dear Sir.” Even if we were hiring from Pakistan, which we weren't, I would never hire anyone who assumed I was a man.

So when Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) did it to me, I reacted.


Please cancel my 8:00 am flight on Saturday. I accidentally booked it thinking 8:00 was 20:00. (I forgot they use military time.)



Dear Sir,

This refers to your email. We will look into the matter and confirm the refund.

PIA Customer Service


Please note that I am Madam NOT Sir. Women book plane tickets too.


Dear Ms. Nadia,

We apologize for the inconvenience caused to you by our email.



It would not be hard to change their automated response to “Dear Sir/Madam.” Perhaps more women need to book plane tickets in Pakistan. Or just react more.

(Feel free to send a protest note to my penpal at PIA:

ISI at the Afghan Consulate

I ran into the ISI, Pakistan’s notorious intelligence services, while looking for an Afghan visa in Pakistan.  Pakistan is not a police state, like Syria or Iran, so it’s not normal to run into an ISI agent.

The visa section of the Afghan consulate looked like a converted chowkidar’s (guard’s) hut, attached to the boundary wall of the consulate.  It was on a dusty back lane in a residential area.  And it wasn’t that easy to find, considering all the published addresses and phone numbers were wrong. 

The first time I went to the consulate—dark and un-air conditioned—I watched a fatherly consular officer taking thumbprints and congratulating young Afghan men on their new Afghan passports.  They looked like refugees working as laborers in Pakistan.  I was a bit amazed.  Afghanistan is often related to Pakistan, but these people spoke, acted, and looked completely different.  The fact that I had never before noticed Afghans in Pakistan reminded me how invisible and impoverished Pakistan’s almost 2 million Afghan refugees are.   

I looked a little out of place, with my wedge heels, big sunglasses, and U.S. passport.  Most of all, I was a woman on my own.

The visa officer told me what I needed to apply for a visa and I returned on the second day to submit my application.  When I walked outside, my driver was talking to someone, which was normal.  But when I got in the car, he didn’t go away.

“Is she from Pakistan?” he asked my driver at his window.  He looked like any man off the street, thin, dark, and wearing a dirty shalwar kameez.  “Why does she want to go to Afghanistan?”

“Who is he?” I was asking my driver at the same time.  “Why is he asking these questions?  Why aren’t we leaving?”

My driver was giving us both vague answers, so I tried to get the man to talk to me directly.  It took a few attempts.  I guess he was trying to be respectful.  Finally, he came around to my window.

“My friend wants to build a school in Afghanistan,” I explained, “I’m a student at Harvard.”

That probably made no sense to him, so he asked for all of my contact information.  I wasn’t eager to give all that up to a dirty man on the street, but I took a bet that he didn’t have email or international calling and gave him my Harvard Kennedy School business card.  He was instantly satisfied and we pulled away.

“Who was that??” I asked my driver in a dozen different ways.  I didn’t get any clear answers, only that he had something to do with the consulate. 

I went back the next day to pick up my visa.  When I left, my driver was talking to the same man, but this time he was wearing nice pants and a clean shirt.

He greeted me like an old friend, apologizing profusely.  “Your driver scolded me for scaring you yesterday.  I should have showed you my badge.”

He pulled out an ISI identification card.  On the back it said something like: This man has permission to enter and search anything he asks for.  An unlimited warrant!

He then went on for a few minutes as I tried to get in the car, “The work you are doing is wonderful.  You are studying very important things.  More of our young people should be doing such things.  We need more people like you.”  He sounded like a proud relative. 

Thank god I had my business card, I thought.  One of his higher-ups must have recognized my school.

At first I thought the ISI officer was suspicious of me as an American going to Afghanistan.  That would be difficult to get out of, if he thought I had other purposes and was making up our intention to build a school.  But then I realized he was probably on the lookout for Pakistanis trying to go to Afghanistan.  That made more sense, and I was even a bit impressed that the Pakistanis would put so much effort into monitoring the movement of their own (often problematic) nationals into Afghanistan.   

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Two Months in Pakistan

I have now been in Pakistan for two months, which is much longer than I had planned to want to be here. But when the time came to leave, I wasn’t ready to go.

I finished my internship in Karachi, and got to know my city and my family along the way. Karachi has changed so much. It now has a raging party and restaurant culture, like any major city in the world. Young boys and girls hang out, smoke, and party together. I never thought I would see Pakistan so cosmopolitan and liberal. (Pizza Hut was the most exciting thing to do in Karachi when I lived there in the early 90s.)

My journalist friend even wrote about me on Huffington Post and the Dawn Newspaper blog.

I came to Lahore for a meeting and ended up staying here for three weeks. The NGO I was working for just started their English summer camp, and once I saw the kids, I cancelled my plans to vacation in India. I signed up to teach in Minhala, a border village that was part of India until the 1965 war with Pakistan. The girls tell me they can see the lights of India from their rooftops.

The village, Minhala, is an hour and fifteen minutes from Lahore, through cattle, farmers, donkey carts, dung, and dust. And it’s sweltering hot, with the electricity hardly ever working, but I still look forward to school each day and am sad that tomorrow is the last day.

I am starting to miss home: my jeans, my independence, my sense of absolute security. For the past two months, I have constantly been balancing a dupatta (long scarf) on my shoulder, worrying that my driver and servants hate me, and developing escape strategies for every possible kidnapping/robbery/shooting (but not bombing) scenario in my head. But despite those mental adjustments, fed by my own American consciousness and very paranoid family, I have loved it here and I will miss it, a lot.

I am ready to book a return ticket. But first, I will take a break at a resort in the mountains in northern Pakistan, say goodbye to my family in Karachi, spend a few days in Kabul, and then fly home to Alabama with a stop in DC. Sweet home Alabama, seriously.