Thursday, September 25, 2003

Pakistan - September 2003

Sept. 25, 2003

Dear Family and Friends,

It's humbling to find that other English speakers cannot understand me. At first I make arrogant allowances that they are unaccustomed to proper English. That assumption works well until I find that they are thinking exactly the same of me! Just yesterday, a student was asking for directions on campus. I started to give them, noticed the look on his face and asked, apologetically, if he could understand my English. He said he could then asked "You are Iranian?" I laughed and told him I'm from the US. He laughed, embarrassed. I'm sure the "Axis of Evil" politics came to mind. It's nice to be confused for Middle Eastern; more commonly people have guessed me Israeli. Here, in India, I can realize how easily our humanity has no political boundaries.

At one point, when walking past a professor's apartment on campus - the profs mostly live on campus - a little girl, maybe 5 years old, came running out her short driveway seeing someone she knew walking along the street. She was wearing a pink dress with lots of lace (the kind that makes a girly girl, like I was, feel like a princess) and her face beamed with excitement. Suddenly her bright expression changed as she stopped and looked down at her feet, took a quick step backward, then emitted her bright smile back to the person again. Clearly her parents have shown her a very particular limit up to where she can play and where beyond is too far from home. Crossing that imaginary line was a grave error which she had to remedy before whatever was beyond that boundary swept her up.

Later that night her memory came to me as I journaled. I was a rule following child. I would have stopped and looked at my feet too. I wonder if I shouldn't stop and check my feet right now. What am I doing in a place that my pointing up is the opposite direction from your pointing up? And how will I know if I've ventured too far?

Not only was I (am I) a girly girl, I was also scared of everything. My parents didn't have to worry that I might go out into the street because I was clearly frightened that I might be hit by a car in the driveway. Snakes, balloons, showers, storms, bees, slivers and worms all kept me from anything remotely adventurous. Just ask my siblings.

At some point I began to wonder what I was missing and whether the fear of something bad was keeping me from experiencing something good. I guess once I started challenging it, I couldn't stop. When does the bad outweigh the good? And then, as a student of theology, the moral issue: How not to allow evil to have such control that it keeps us from embracing the good. And as a theist: a choice to be an active part of the Whole which I recognize to be good. As a Christian: to believe there is resurrection is to recognize that death is not the most powerful. Each of us (with an all-inclusive definition of "us") is valued by the Creator who has shown that life is greater than death. However, it is up to us to make a choice of Life.

It all sounds good until I remember that Daniel Pearl's (journalist kidnapped, tortured and killed in Pakistan last year) book is entitled At Home in the World.

I was in Peshawar, the border city on the Pakistan side of the Khyber Pass leading into Afghanistan, on the 11th of September this year.

The Rotary Club in Pacifica, outside of San Francisco, meets for breakfast on Tuesday mornings. The men and women who met in Pacifica on Tuesday, 11 Sept. 2001 were bonded in their common feelings of grief and helplessness. In an effort we all felt, to bring something good out of something so very bad, they began to look for ways to help victims of terrorism. Their aid interest went international, to needs of the displaced people of Afghanistan. There are over three million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and Iran. Many of them have been living there since the late 70’s when the Soviets began the violence in their homeland. With over a quarter century of instability and refugee life, many Afghans have lost (or never had) a vision of a peaceful home. One practical need is trade learning. The Pacifica Club has set up a project to train women in basic trades like carpet weaving, sewing, embroidering and speaking English. The coordinator, Chris Verrill, a member of the Pacifica Club, has been living in Delhi for the past two months. He invited me, as a Rotary Scholar, to join him on his next trip to Peshawar.

Pakistanis drive Toyota Corollas just like us. Many also fly kites. On approaching a small city or village the horizon contains brown walls the color of the earth from which they were formed. The single story buildings are at peace with their well squared walls, as if the human's ability for precision is as artistically a part of nature as an ant hill. Perhaps due to lack of electricity, but I hope for the simple joy it, the sky is dotted with darting kites. Each dodges one wind current then catches the next, held to the earth by a string and the hand of a boy or man with his eye on the world of wind currents above him. Like his kite, he darts, not looking where his foot lands on earth but to where he hopes his kite will give the most resistance and sail as high as it can go.

Until now I associated kites with Highlights Magazines and Mary Poppins. Now I can add Pakistan to the list. Kites... Highlights... Mary Poppins... and Pakistan. It sounds like a joke to put these colorful things in the same sentence as Pakistan. But that fact alone reflects my earlier ignorance. As if a whole country's worth of grandparents, parents and children would be living without color. As if I could claim to understand a country based on the black and white media text from which I read my news.

The farther west and more rural one travels in Pakistan the more tribal the culture. By the time one arrives in Peshawar most of the women wear burkas (like wearing a tent with a net at eye level to look out through). Unattractive is one way to describe the burka. Just plain ugly is most accurate. Without reason, or conscious thought, I'd concluded that beneath the burka could only be an ugly old woman who would want to hide herself. Then, on Thursday, while in search of a post office, I was on a side street. Two women were huddled at a step where they were caring for a sick baby. Both had lifted the front of their burkas and rested them on their foreheads while they bent to the child. Still I could only see their backs. Try as I did, even when they pulled the burkas back down, they shielded their faces so I could not see them. But I did see one's hand. It was a young hand. I realized this was the baby's mother, and a young mother at that. The young woman hoisted her child - a girl - in her arms. The baby peered at me over her mother's shoulder as the two tents walked away. On the step they left a quarter piece of newspaper that the little girl had been lying on. It was the torn page of international news: "US Defense Spending Could Reach $480 Billion". As an Ambassadorial Scholar, I hope I can represent my country better than the black and white text news.

Depending on the variation and extent of Islam a family follows, some woman are not permitted to be seen by a man they are not related to. With few exceptions, all women kept their heads covered in public. Those women who don't wear burkas still dressed in a manner which deliberately concealed any feminine curves. The result was that I was out in public in clothing I would normally only wear to bed. Though this may have been bothersome to me, the reality was that by respecting the culture, I was given the opportunity to visit both men and woman.

At one of the refugee camps, in particular, we visited a home which, like all the other homes, had high walls of dried mud surrounding it. It was explained to us in Pashto (I think, though it may have been Urdu) by men with long white beards and pakols on their heads, that the walls were built to keep the flooding river from taking their mud block homes. We - three male Rotarians and I - met with the men, discussing supplies needed for the classes, the number of students expected, who would teach and where classes would be held. Then, as we went to look at the carpet frame, I, and only I, was invited to meet the women. Until this time we'd been meeting outside. Now a door was opened to the home. I stepped into the small dark room to find at least eight women and a couple girls inside. They welcomed me with excited smiles. They showed me that I should sit. There were no chairs, only an incredible carpet - the kind of carpet people pay hundreds or thousands (I checked e-bay) of dollars for in the USA. We all sat, no translator among us. We spent our time admiring their bangles and my head covering. They were all related, an elderly mother with her two daughters and their daughters.

I was sad to leave when it was time to go. Again I've been blessed to witness life from what seems like the other side of it. There is truth, at an absolute level, to be found here - even if pointing up from here is in the opposite direction than from Ohio.

There still feels like so much more to say. But this has been long enough.

We are such a small earth. We are such good people. Faith can move mountains ... then peace is not beyond us either.

I'll write again soon.

peace and love, molly