Equal as the Teeth of a Comb

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Photo credit: Sayed Amjad Hussain

Ami, my mother, does my hair, “Helen-of-Troy-style,” a high pony tail with strands wrapped around it on days there is extra time before school. She remembers the hairdo from an old movie which she talks about often, along with her other favorite The Taming of the Shrew with Liz Taylor. When she combs, she hums, mostly Urdu songs, occasionally Punjabi. Since settling in Peshawar, she has taught herself Pashto not only because it isn’t easy to run a household and her myriad projects without knowing the local language, but because she has a genuine love for connecting with people of all kinds, everywhere. We joke that she can make friends while crossing the road; this is something she and I don’t have in common. I tend to be withdrawn, like my father, content with my books and thoughts.

There are times when I do enjoy going on outings, especially when Ami takes me on an excursion to the old city and shows me how herbs, spices, henna, tealeaves, and grains of every kind are sold box-less, displayed in smooth mounds. I like to walk through the narrow streets with her, taking in the crisp, salty aroma of street food, the colors of sherbets, glass bangles, sparkly trim for dupattas, watching shopkeepers with their paraphernalia— their weighing scales, aluminum scoops and glossy brown paper bags. The joy of walking through a bazar, which will become a subject I’ll explore for years in my writing, begins here. I feel certain that if I were to put my ear to the ground, I’ll hear the tread of Silk Road caravans. My curiosity about how cultures of encounter are formed and revealed in the marketplace— about trade- and work habits, competition and conflict, creative marketing, the ethos of fair-play and equality and the complex dynamics of cosmopolitanism— is born as a result of watching my mother interact. I’m astonished by how she varies the language or dialect, accent or register, “code-switching” naturally as she goes. Read more »

Combing the Silk Road

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, so that I may climb the golden stair:” the witch sings to the blonde Rapunzel imprisoned in her tower.

Rudabeh, Persian miniature

In a legend, Rudabeh, the dark-haired princess of Kabul lets her hair down like a rope for prince Zal to climb up to her tower. She has eyes “like the narcissus and lashes that draw their blackness from the raven’s wing.” Her name is Rudabeh, “child of the river.”

Rapunzel is Brothers Grimms’ nineteenth century retelling of Persinette (1689), which is surmised to be an adaptation of the millennia old Persian legend of Rudabeh, famously recast in Shahnameh, the Persian masterpiece written by the poet Ferdowsi in the eleventh century. Ferdowsi’s lofty praise in his poem set a high bar for the artists who painted the legendary beauty Rudabeh: “about her silvern shoulders two musky black tresses curl, encircling them with their ends as though they were links in a chain.”

The links between such stories from the East and the West emerged first through startling common etymologies in everyday language, songs and stories. As a child tuned in to the world of words, I asked for stories when my mother combed my hair, and caught images and contours of sound in fairy tales in English, the text running from the left to the right and stories of the Alif Laila (One Thousand and One Nights) and Qissa Chahaar Darvish (The Story of the Four Dervishes) in Urdu from the right to left. Read more »

My Pakistan Television Show

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

PTVWhat they did not understand at the PTV station was that it's in my nature to be elsewhere, nodding attentively one minute, gone the next. I didn't understand it either, the tendency to let myself be stolen into another world, switching between here and there like flashes of moon jellies, now lit, now dim. I was six and always behind by a few moments or hours even in the sleepy town of Peshawar with its gray mountain-scape, chinar trees and flaxen afternoons; its rhythms defined less by blasting horns of public buses, or noise of plaza construction, more by the Mochi, the tap-tapping cobbler who could sew together anything from a ripped shoe buckle to a suitcase, the churning of the dyer with smoke rising from his boiling dyes and moist dupatta scarves in solids or tie-dye bellowing joyfully on a grid of ropes, or the radio playing commentary in cricket season, the sudden bursts and crescendos of the cheering crowds.

I don't recall the color or contours of the PTV building but I remember vividly my obsession with skipping across large square tiles, instead of walking normally from the make-up room to the studio. The make-up artist was a friendly lady, who, it seemed, could not do her work without chewing gum. She smelled like hairspray, lipstick and moist base; the smells I loved in this surreal, mirrored room, make-up being my favorite of all forbidden things in my regular life.

In the producer's room Marie biscuits and blue-rimmed teacups with thick chai were in constant supply. I would get mesmerized by the upside down reflection of Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah's photo on the glass top of the desk, dizzied as I'd get by the reflected motion of the ceiling fan—all the while trying to memorize lines. The props were another distraction: how could I not tinker with larger than life butterflies and flowers? I once ate all the sweet choori meant for the parrot that was to appear on my show. When I was told they had designed a door in a large apple for me to make an entry from, I couldn't keep it a secret and told everyone I knew, weeks before the actual episode. Those were the days before video games and the Internet, and emerging out of an apple was terribly newsworthy.

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