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.