by Claire Chambers
In her 1989 memoir Meatless Days, Sara Suleri famously writes that 'leaving Pakistan was, of course, tantamount to giving up the company of women'. She goes on to explain that in Pakistan womanhood did not truly exist as a concept: 'we were too busy for that, just living, and conducting precise negotiations with what it meant to be a sister or a child or a wife or a mother or a servant'.
Having left Pakistan recently after a whirlwind week giving and attending talks, I've had the opportunity to reflect on the acuity of Suleri's words. For me, women's company is always a large part of what it means to visit the Islamic Republic. This was all the more true on the recent trip, since a hotel mix-up led to my sharing a room in Mandi Bahauddin for one night with a young female lecturer from Lahore. As the two of us got on with 'just living', we stayed up late talking about love, academia, and religion. Amidst much laughter, we showed each other Bollywood Thumkas and energetic Zumba.
Earlier, in Islamabad, I had spent time with an old friend who had studied for her PhD in England and now teaches at International Islamic University. Aroosa was a shining example of South Asia's famed hospitality, taking me up the winding mountainous roads for a walk at the foot of the Margalla Hills. I hadn't seen this verdant view — its serenity only broken by insouciant monkeys — since the 1990s, except in films such as Hammad Khan's Slackistan. At Margalla Hills too, I saw a sign emblazoned with the words 'Long Live Pak-China Friendship'. This was a salutary reminder that while the West tends to focus on longstanding Indo-Pak hostilities and the post-9/11 coinage of Af-Pak, Pakistan has lower-key but important relationships with its two other neighbours: Iran and China. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC includes an ambitious and controversial road being built to connect the northern border with China at the Khunjerab Pass, through Gilgit-Baltistan and Rawalpindi down to the deep sea port of Gwadar in Balochistan. The 'all-weather' Sino-Pakistani relationship is viewed askance by many Indians. For example, the scholars Parvaiz Ahmad and Bawa Singh describe the ramping up of the friendship as a new Great Game for the region. Scarcely contemplating this geo-political maneovring, Aroosa and I sampled the most eye-wateringly delicious paan I had ever tasted (admittedly I had little experience to draw on!) and squinted at as much of the view of Pakistan's capital as was afforded through the smog.
Smog! I had never seen anything like it, but was reminded of reading about the 'pea-soupers' of Dickens' London. Friends told me that when this miasma first descended about a decade ago, they were initially charmed by the thought of mists and mellow fruitfulness. However, amidst much choking, the smarting of eyes, and poor visibility, Pakistanis were quickly disabused of this romantic notion.
The smog has worsened in last few years, even coming to be seen as a fifth season between autumn and winter. Some rushed to blame the convenient scapegoat of India, because East Punjabi farmers' stubble burning contributes to the problem. Others agreed with Pakistan's former climate change negotiator Shafqat Kakakhel that 'Maybe the smog can bring us together'. In both Delhi and Lahore, simply inhaling the noxious air does the same damage as smoking at least 40 cigarettes a day. And Pakistanis need to look at their own practices, such as the wholesale destruction of trees, before castigating their foes next door. Sociologist Anita Weiss currently resides in Lahore, and observes: 'The deterioration of public transit networks and the proliferation of automobiles and private minibuses cause unprecedented traffic congestion, bottlenecks and pollution'. Small wonder that grassroots movements such as the 'Lahore Can't Breathe' campaign have emerged to challenge this intolerable situation.
In part because of the smog, my journey from Islamabad to Mandi Bahauddin took over twice as long as it would normally. The traffic disruption was exacerbated by religious protests in Islamabad in November 2017 that brought vehicles to a dispiriting halt. The outside world is now waking up to the ongoing standoff; as I write, demonstrations have spread to other major cities, news programmes and social media have been suspended, and Pakistan teeters on the brink of another military coup. The disturbances are over an alleged amendment to the religious oath sworn by incoming National Assembly members, which hardliners view as blasphemous and soft on minorities, particularly the victimized Ahmadi community. Suffering both verbal and physical attack, Pakistan's beleaguered law minister Zahid Hamid, who is seen as responsible for the amendment, is close to resigning.
If the significance of the traffic jams was less clear at the time, the fact that the government saw fit to provide me with armed police escorts for my trip through rural Punjab to my conference in Mandi Bahauddin gave the journey an edge. Amid the hazy light brightening the bulrush-lined Upper Jhelum Canal, bumping along kachcha road behind idling tractors, and being served with great kindness at a surprisingly chic mini mart attached to an Attock petrol station, it would have been easy to forget Pakistan's severe security problems. In Jhelum City, I saw the gargantuan Military College and, incongruously, a tomato ketchup hoarding bearing the slogan: 'Original Pulpy'. I heard the sat nav butcher Punjabi street names in first an American accent and then a female British voice (the latter reminded me of my own strangled attempts at elementary Urdu).
And Original Pulpy was far from unique; I was in turn assailed, charmed, and tickled by the inventive English of roadside signs. Sizzlers Restaurant and Divine Hotel. Wedlock Marquees. Laser Inn Aesthetic Hair Transplant. Roots DHA: Unprecedented Acceptances in World Top Universities. Chilli Broast. Oppo Selfie Expert. If all this was sufficiently puzzling, when I switched on the television set in my hotel room and caught some of the game show Aisay ChaLay Ga, I was completely baffled by its footage of women in dupattas arm wrestling and playing darts.
Pleasure and pain coexisted again when a British-based friend's army husband took me for a generous early lunch at a deserted club in DHA Defence before my fight back home from Islamabad's Benazir Bhutto Airport. As I savoured the Pakistani take on Chinese food, 'finger fish', and crème caramel and filled in the ubiquitous restaurant evaluation form, I thought uncomfortably of Parker Bilal's description of a gated community in Egypt from his crime fiction novel The Golden Scales:
‘In a few years this will be one of the most exclusive resorts in the world with a luxury marina, pools, golf courses, fine restaurants. It will be a world unto itself.’
Makana could not shake off the feeling that there was something ominous about the fact that as soon as people had some money, the first thing they wanted to do was cut themselves off from the rest of the world. Maybe it was just human nature.
At the airport, a banner reading 'Your marriage, your choice' urged young people to contact Islamabad's British High Commission if they had doubts about going through with a family-endorsed wedding. A group of British Pakistani youths I encountered while boarding the plane were far from browbeaten as they joshed each other in Four Lions accents with pronounced plosive consonants: 'I'm looking forward to getting back to England, innit. Back to civilization. Do you know what I miss? Cleanliness. Here there's like a pile of cow shit on the side of the road and nobody cares, bro. Still, I'm going to miss the place.'
On the aeroplane I sat next to a Hajji from Keighley and his Gujrat-raised wife. I was unsure whether this conservative-looking man would be happy cheek by jowl with the only gori on the flight, but should have known better than to make assumptions about his long white beard. In a softly rural accent he reassured me that Pakistan International Airlines' business class was 'nowt to shout about' and that we would be just fine in second class. He reminisced about arriving in West Yorkshire at the age of seven and getting a shock when he made his first return to Pakistan in the early 1980s to get married. He had hardly missed a day of cycling to his work as a bus driver over almost four decades, and his passion for taking his bike for weekend rides into God's own country reminded me of that of my own husband. His wife stroked his bald head as he described their anguish at losing their eldest son as a teenager 20 years earlier — a loss that precipitated his turn to religion. We were all perhaps slightly idealistic about Pakistan, with the wife extolling the virtues of children helping their parents, me praising people's ingenuity for recycling, and Hajji Sahib waxing lyrical about dentistry, having availed himself of some light health tourism to get denture work done much more cheaply than in England.
Back in Manchester, I caught up with social media, finding that the news was still mesmerised by Harvey Weinstein's extensive and systemic sexual abuse of women. As if in parallel, by far the most anthropological and threatening experience of my whole trip was getting the packed late train back to Leeds that Saturday night. A drunk Ted Baker-shirted male traded insults with an indomitable Mancunian woman as he tried to persuade her to let him use the toilet first on the grounds that a 'shart' was imminent. Another inebriated man spoke loudly to a friend of his apparent sexual exploits. In the eyerolls and muttered sarcasm of fellow females sharing an uncomfortable proximity to the scatalogical queue-jumper and this braggart, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the supportive company of women I had so enjoyed in the subcontinent.