Harp & Altar
Corey Frost

Elise Harris
Notes from Pakistan: Part 1

Joanna Howard

Steve Katz

Johannah Rodgers

Notes from Pakistan: Part 1
Elise Harris

In January, Elise Harris travelled from New York to Lahore, Pakistan, to interview Maryam Jameelah, a convert from Judaism who became a public intellectual affiliated with the Islamic political party Jama’at-i Islami. Harris kept a travel diary during her three months in Lahore. Some names have been changed. This is the first of two parts.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

I bought my ticket about three weeks ago. Ever since I’ve been walking around in a fog of fear. I haven’t been able to focus normally or engage with others without feeling preoccupied. In church this morning during joys and sorrows Elizabeth puts my name up for prayers. Her words, and my pastor’s mention of “people going to distant and dangerous places,” trigger a little crying jag. This makes me feel better.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Q: What happens when you try to substitute an external will for your own?


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

“God does not change what is in a people, until they change what is in themselves.” Quran, S. 13:11.


Friday, January 26, 2007

Get up at 5am to get to airport by 7. I am feeling extremely reluctant to go. I can’t sleep and instead find myself fantasizing that I am somebody’s wife somewhere tending a garden. Two of my best friends are getting engaged, that’s what I should be doing.


Monday, January 29, 2007–Tuesday January 30, 2007

Spent a nice weekend with friends in London. This morning, I feel scared again. A friendly cab driver takes me to airport. He tells me it won’t be what I think.

This is some kind of personal case study in how easy it is to make people afraid. I am aware that my fear is irrational but I can’t control it. Anyway, I’ve got my anxiety down enough that the wifely gardening fantasies have subsided.

On the plane I fall asleep. When I wake up, I look over at the couple in front of me. They are watching a Bollywood musical. The sons and daughters of a family have organized a huge party for their father, replete with drums, confetti, sparkly fireworks. The son sings to his father, “You’re the best that ever was, no one will ever come close.” The father is smiling joyously, wearing a garland, and waving his arms merrily in the air. I can’t imagine a similar scene in an American movie.

Stopover in Abu Dhabi. Intense fog in Lahore has delayed our connecting flight. Almost every woman wears a hijab. I see some nice ones: Chanel logo, leopard print, and white crochet.

For the 12-hour stopover I’m fed and put up in a lounge for business class travelers. I rest on a leather couch under a giant plasma screen TV, as does a giant woman dressed totally in black from her covered hair to her veiled face to her sandaled feet. I wake up a few hours later to see a fellow traveler watching The Blues Brothers on the plasma TV above my head. We watch a scene where Dan Ackroyd steals several cartons of cigarettes from a minimart. Without taking his eyes from the TV screen, my lounge mate slowly reaches into his plastic duty-free bag and pulls out a carton of cigarettes. A few minutes later, Ackroyd propositions the Twiggy character. She says she’ll think about it. I feel squirmy watching it. Even understated sexual license seems risqué here. The movie is ultra American, with rascally antiheroes outsmarting the buffoonish authorities. Our self-image. Try to sleep some more. In the morning I take a shower in the lounge’s bathroom.

Get to Lahore. Outside the airport I see a large crowd of people. On the drive from the airport, the city seems dusty, noisy, loud, the buildings are dilapidated, children and old people mill around, there are donkeys pulling carts on the road. Motorbikes speed past, each carrying 3 or 4 people. Women and children sit behind or in front of male drivers. Women sit side saddle, with both their legs dangling in the air to one or the other side of the motorbike. Army police stand at a lot of the traffic intersections. Apparently traffic lights get stolen as soon as they are put up.

Taxi takes me to my default housing option, a backpacker hostel. It’s pretty grim, but it’s cheap. When I tell the clerk that I’m American, a white man wearing an Afghan cap looks away from his computer screen towards me and scowls. Need to remember to say Canadian. John and Abida, friends of friends, pick me up and take me to look at guesthouses. Guesthouses are not listed in guidebooks. They get business from word of mouth. Hotels are slightly cleaner, but guesthouses are cheaper.

In the car, we stop at an intersection. Right in front of us, a driver hits a bicyclist, who wobbles around before falling down onto the pavement. “Welcome to Lahore,” says John.

After a few tries, we find a guesthouse that charges $20 a night. I agree to stay here for a day or two. Hopefully I can find something better. On the TV are music video style tributes to Ashura, the Shia commemoration of Hussein’s martydrom. The camera shows a close-up of the stake that leads the procession. At the top of the pole is a stylized hand, its five fingers representing the Prophet’s five closest family members. This is inter-cut with footage of a young boy singing devotional music and of ceremonies where hundreds of shirtless men lift their arms into the air and bring them down onto their chest.

I go downstairs to use the inn’s computer. The hotel manager stands behind me while I click on the explorer icon. A homepage comes up. All I can see is the url pornpornpornvids.com, the word “Indian,” and the word “anal.” The manager is very embarrassed and rushes to close the window. But I find it reassuring.


Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Today I feel better. I slept for 12 hours, showered, washed my hair, cleaned myself up. I think sleep released Important Hormones.

Abida calls to say that she’s found me a place to stay for free. Her uncle’s hotel has a spare staff room and I am welcome to use it. She’ll come to pick me up in two hours. She’s a beautiful daughter of the elite. She drives a Mercedes-Benz and wears skintight jeans and t-shirts, tons of makeup, and a diamond ring. I feel kind of ridiculous next to her because I’m wearing shapeless, conservative clothes I ordered from Islamic “modesty fashion” websites. It’s an infantilizing situation. Abida speaks for me and negotiates for me. I have to be led around and helped. Luckily she’s a very take-charge, commanding person; she loves problem solving. Her personality triggers some kind of regression in me. It is a joy to follow behind her like a child. The thing I came for must get done, but why must I be the one to do it? A friend of mine once remarked, “I just wish I could find someone to live my life for me.” That’s how I’m feeling today.

Abida takes me to lunch. She tells me about the screenplay she’d like to write, a love story set among local elite. “Spoiled brats are the same all over the world,” she says, “same issues, same concerns, same ideas.” It’s true. Marx said the same thing.

Abida says that Pakistani kids who grow up in the West don’t know who they are. At her Ivy League university, the Muslim Students Association was ultra conservative. They put up a sheet to separate men from women. She thought it was idiotic. “Those of us who grow up here, in the culture, we’re not going to go bomb something.”

She moves me over to her uncle’s high-end hotel. On my hall are two Kenyans, a woman from the Philippines, and an Englishwoman. I will have a private room that locks, a private bathroom, and the use of a kitchen and washer-dryer. I spend $50 on food at a local supermarket. Everyone brought entertainment from home. The Kenyan guys watch Australian Christian rock concerts on DVD. I listen to Blood on the Tracks on my computer.

Someone, probably a local construction worker who sleeps in a tent next to a nearby site, plays religious music on loudspeakers all night.


Thursday, February 1, 2007

In the morning I talk with the Kenyan guys. They ask me if I was afraid to come here, a question most people will ask me. Yes, I say, although it feels racist or “Islamophobic” to admit. Peter says that al-Qaeda bombed in their country too. Mark says that his first year here was hell. He wasn’t sure, but he thought that his coworkers were laughing at him and gossiping in Urdu.


Friday, February 2, 2007

A hotel guest invites me to go play golf. Everyone is in Western golfwear and the course is very pretty. Meet an ultra rich woman who looks like Patricia Highsmith but in Chanel sunglasses and a sun visor. She has a very flat affect, maybe she’s permafried from drugs. I like golf as it turns out.


Sunday, February 4, 2007

I have gotten more comfortable going around Lahore alone. Public transport is the automated rickshaw, a small gas fueled carriage where you sit in the back and a driver sits in the front. Inside the carriage are colorful decorations, pom poms, red, gold and green piping. Last night a driver asked me where I come from. My answer was “Canada?” He looked reassured and said “very good.” I haven’t said it with confidence yet.


Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Visit a woman who runs S.O.S. Childrens’ Villages, a network of orphanages throughout Pakistan. The village here in Lahore has 18 homes. Each home has 9 children and a house “mother.” plus a school, mosque, and playground area. The woman is dignified and queenly. I describe the work I’m doing, mentioning that I study a woman who is deeply religious but with a peculiar form of . . . what is the word? . . . “Zeal,” she offers diplomatically. I tell her my mother is upset about my being here, and she says, “Oh, yes, Conrad Hilton’s mother was terribly worried when he flew relief supplies here after the earthquake. We gave him such a ribbing about it!! We told him ‘Conrad, you’d better call your mother!!’ ”

I go to House 9, where I meet a beautiful 24-year-old girl with a great personality. She tells me that men send their marriage requests to the office and they sort through them there, trying to determine which girl might be right for which man. She’s had more proposals than she can count, but none of them appealed to her. “I know, I know. I am pretty and I have a nice smile,” she says wearily. I eat dinner with R. and her housemates. A small girl, maybe about age 8, sings “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” for me.


Wednesday, February 7, 2007

I have registered with the U.S. State Department so receive this email:


Embassy of the United States of America Consular Section, Diplomatic Enclave Rabida 5, Islamabad, Pakistan Warden Notice No. 4/2007


According to Pakistani police and media reports, several armed men attempted to force their way into Islamabad airport late Tuesday night.  One of the men was ultimately killed when the grenade he was carrying exploded in the parking lot.  The attack was thwarted by Pakistani police and airport security personnel. No U.S. citizens were injured in this attack.  The Islamabad airport was closed due to the incident but is now re-opened, with stricter security measures in place.


The Embassy would like to remind the American citizen community of the need to stay alert, be aware of your surroundings, vary times and routes, reduce travel to minimum acceptable levels, act self-defensively at all times, and avoid all demonstration activity. We remind American citizens that threats, protests and demonstrations may occur throughout Pakistan without prior notice or warning.


Thursday, February 8, 2007

Initially I was focused on overcoming my own prefab ideas of Pakistan. Now I’m realizing that Pakistani men have prefab ideas about me too. An American woman who’s been here two years says that from a steady and exclusive diet of the Saw trilogy and music videos, one could get the impression that American women wear bikinis everywhere, run naked through the woods while being chased by serial killers, and love to sleep with any man who propositions them. Yesterday, I tried to sit on a park bench to read a book. But man after man came up and tried to talk to me. I felt targeted and went to a department store to buy a shalwaar kameez. It’s a three-piece outfit, a long tunic, matching pants, and a dupatta, a blanket size scarf that covers your chest and hair. Apparently your sexuality is perceived to be located in your hair and chest. So the dupatta covers your chest, loops behind your neck, and then you pull it up over your hair. My hair is too thick for a headscarf to look good on me. But once I pull the thing over my head the stares go down by 50%–75%. So it’s worth it. I felt uncomfortable after this episode and kind of retreated for a bit. Venturing out again today.

I am loathe to generalize about “women in Pakistan” because that was always a colonial leitmotif. The female literacy rate is under 30% in a country where the overall literacy rate is about 44%. Between 5% and 10% of women are actually educated to age 18. Families expect that older girls will do housework and childcare, the religious want single-sex classrooms, government spending on education is 1% of GDP. The results are that many women have limited social and economic options and get stuck in abusive marriages. Human rights groups put domestic violence rates at 70%–90%. A big controversy here has been the Hudud Ordinance, which was passed by General Zia in the ’80s and partially undone by the Women’s Protection Bill in November 2006. The Hudud Ordinance put rape under the jurisdiction of sharia, rather than civil, law, requiring four witnesses. Its bans on adultery and fornication were easily exploitable, and women were sometimes incarcerated without legal assistance on the word of some belligerent guy. And if a woman tried to accuse a man of rape, he could turn the tables and charge her with fornication. Under the new law, rape is prosecuted under civil law. Adultery and non-marital consensual sex are still offences, but police can no longer detain people suspected of having sex outside of marriage without a formal accusation in court. There are also economic reasons for the status of women here. Pakistan does not get a lot of foreign investment. In many other Third World countries, foreign investment has built light manufacturing and service industries that employ large numbers of women and provide a ladder into the middle class. Only about 15% of Pakistani women work outside the home.

It’s hard to reconcile the totally liberated, skintight jeans and modern girl vibe of some of the elite women with the really different sensibility projected by some of the poorer women. A woman I know keeps referring to women who are “out” versus those who are “not out” meaning those who leave the home freely vs. those who can’t/don’t. I can’t get a handle on what proportions of women live which lifestyle. She says that some administrators from her college went to the U.S. for a year for work. What surprised them most was how “conservative” we are. That there isn’t porn everywhere you look and people aren’t drunk and marauding around. I think they were in the South, in a family oriented social milieu.


Thursday, February 8, 2007

On the founder of the Jama’at, from Bruce Lawrence: “Maulana Mawdudi was able to articulate ideals that in practice neither he nor others could uphold.”

I suppose the one hazard of pretending you’re Canadian is the possibility that you will run into someone who is actually Canadian. I meet such a guy tonight. He’s like where are you from, I say Canada. He says me too! Uh oh. I say Montreal, where I’ve been at least, he says Calgary, about which I have no clue. Yikes!! Of course it seems totally possible that he is lying too. I just change the subject.

Try to go to Sufi night with new acquaintance. We fail and eat dinner at Café Life instead. He mentions something about how exceptionally isolated Americans are from the rest of the world. He’s 25 and has already been to Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and is now going to school in Pakistan. I also meet some backpackers at the local hostel who have that “extra from Les Misérables” look that backpackers always have. I am in the market for platonic male companionship—it makes life easier and you can go places at night—but I just want a friend. I have to find someone else.


Friday, February 9, 2007

Today I buy a chicken sandwich for lunch. Eat half of it. Then small girl (like age 4 or 5) comes up to me and begs. She is filthy with long braids and literally in rags, no joke. I give her half sandwich and she starts jumping up and down like I’ve not seen. Doing a little dance where she twists and jumps from left to right at the same time on a mattress waving the sandwich. A boy (her brother?) emerges from garbage heap he’s been exploring.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Go to church at the fairly conservative/evangelical ICF. Lots of whispering prayer, hands in the air, etc. The sermon by an American evangelist/missionary woman is oddly relevant to my subject. She works in an area of Thailand where Buddhists have, she said, executed Christians. (I think there are different factions of Buddhists in different places and they aren’t all nonviolent, cf. Japanese subway bombers.) The language she used is so similar to all emotional revivalists: She had been close to suicide at age 19 but found that “God takes out your heart and puts in his heart”  and God “gives you a focus.” “He gives you authority in your own life.” She had a vision of herself sitting in God’s court on a throne, she was to the right of Jesus. He was wielding a scepter, then handed it to her. “He’ll exchange your strength for His strength.” “You’re living life with a purpose, not just dealing with whatever comes at you.” “We all want to be winners.” She kept using a “scoring points for the team analogy,” i.e. how many souls have you saved for Jesus. Talked about how competitive she is, how when she’s in an airport she likes to walk next to the conveyor belt and get places faster than the people on the belt. Also that she was sleeping in a hammock in the jungle in Burma, and that she thought (to Jesus), “the things I do for you,” and He replied and said, “the things I’ve done for YOU!!”  It hadn’t occurred to me before this trip, but it seems like the worst kind of Christianity, the really chauvinist, anti-Islamic, non-ecumenical kind, makes a special point to come to this part of the world. Exacerbates the problem. The two or three local Christians I have met here say that Muslims are evil terrorists. One waiter said, carefully and deliberately, “Jesus Christ, He is the Prince of Peace.” I remember a driver saying about a prominent Muslim figure, “He is mad, Madame. MAD!!!” The Christians are the lowest rung economically here, they’re “the sweepers.” They haven’t always been able to vote, and I think there was really violent persecution in the past. Often they lie about their religion to get jobs. Or convert: Muhammed Yusuf, the best cricket player in the world, is Pakistani, formerly Christian, now Muslim. Cricket is huge here.

After church a young Christian woman walks with me to get a rickshaw. After about 10 minutes of acquaintance she starts telling me about how her family wanted her to marry a man she doesn’t love, so she had to run away and live with her sister, who is estranged from the family because of a pregnancy (she miscarried). She is crying, tears streaming down her face after I’ve known her for 15 minutes. Apparently I remind her of a girl from Holland she knew. She says that “making this decision has made me strong” but “many girls make sacrifices for their families.” I guess the arranged marriage thing is cultural not religious.

Go to interview MJ after church. Get a little closer to her every time I talk with her, small openings, see little things. About how difficult it is to believe things you don’t want to be true about people you love, people who protect you, or people who pay your salary. It’s a good thing I’m a nerd, because makes her relate to me. She takes all my books from me and insists on reading them between our interviews. So far she’s read Olivier Roy’s Globalized Islam and Reza Aslan’s No God but God. Her extended family is enormous, extremely polite and well behaved, and warm. She and her co-wife together had 13 kids, 6 boys and 7 girls.

Her husband is an aging member of the Jama’at-i Islami, a political party boycotting the National Assembly to protest the Women’s Protection Bill. The Jama’at has a student organization named the IJT who have a lot of power on the campus of the University of the Punjab. When Peter Armacost came here to run Forman Christian College, IJT members made a black coffin and wrote DR. ARMACOST on the side of it, paraded around campus with it. The IJT is against the idea of the sexes mingling, even just speaking or dining together. If a boy and a girl are talking on an IJT dominated campus, they will beat up the boy.

After interview, go to Kara Film Festival at Sozo world cinema. See Man Push Cart, shot in NYC by an Iranian filmmaker in English and Urdu. Like Abbas Kiarostami, or Lodge Kerrigan, or Old Joy. Really great. Only problem is it is a very quiet, slow, melancholy film, but the theater was next to an amusement park where kids on a roller coaster were screaming. Everyone in audience at this film looks like someone I might know. Very few covered heads. The next movie, a Hindi adaptation of Othello, attracts every posh person in town, I see everyone I’ve met so far in the lobby. Don’t know why but it feels like a dream. Sense of a small provincial elite who all see each other at every mandatory function, like in Anna Karenina.

Have located another possible social circle, which is expats. Apparently there’s an International Club. Mostly a gentleman’s club with “ladies’ lunches” for the wives. Quite a few Scandinavians working for Nestle and Nokia. I have met two American business guys here, very unfriendly.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Work and then come home to eat dinner with housemates. Audrey is having salad. Mary is eating tuna fish. We watch bootleg DVD of Miss Congeniality 2. I do some sewing while we watch.

Mr. Anwar, one of the hotel’s drivers, comes by our TV room to say that that special branch police were at the house today inquiring about “the new Madame” who is living there. Asked who is she and what is she writing about. My heart starts racing and continues to race through the rest of the movie. I had been warned that someone from intelligence would follow me during my trip, but it still upsets me.

After I fall asleep, I have a nightmare in which I am incubating a baby, but in a machine outside of my body. The embryo is being “cooked” between two saucers of brushed steel that are attached to various wires and controlled by dials. I periodically lift up the lid and look at the fetus. It looks human, has a human head. I get impatient and want it to cook faster. I turn up the dial. I know what I am doing is wrong. When I take off the lid, the baby is no longer human looking. It has become undifferentiated flesh, roughly the consistency of canned tuna fish.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Every store is full of greeting cards, stuffed toys, bouquets, chocolates, perfumes. Big sellers are Vera Wang Princess, With Love by Hillary, Midnight Fantasy by Britney Spears. Some high-end restaurants will turn the lights off at midnight for a few minutes. An article in the Daily Times mentions that girls will observe a dress code. Red means you’re in love, yellow means you’re looking for love, black means you don’t want love, white means you’ve just had a breakup, pink means you feel the happiness of a “long relation.” This is probably only true in the richest parts of town.

Go to see Dorothy. She has offered to let me use her school’s library, where I will be able to read and get online for free. While I’m in her office, her assistant comes in to tell us that someone tried to follow me onto the campus, but became hostile when stopped and questioned. He told the guards that he was from Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and that it was his job to follow me. Dorothy takes me to the library as planned and then she goes to a meeting. While she’s gone, the ISI officer comes into her office to question her assistant. He’s following someone who is “writing an article about Islam,” and “he wants to make sure she doesn’t write something blasphemous or anti-Pakistan.” Dorothy comes in from a meeting and finds him there with her assistant. She berates him for spreading my private information to those he’s questioning about me. She follows him outside, where security personnel detain him and take him into their offices for questioning. They call his boss, who confirms that it is indeed his job to follow me around. I am told that he looks like someone’s dad, wears a grey suit, and seems fairly incompetent. “He’s no James Bond,” says Dorothy. People on campus are quite nice about it. A professor who, rumor has it, is a former member of the Jama’at-i Islami, says, “People all over the West are saying bad things about Islam. Why would she travel all the way to Pakistan to say something bad about Islam?”

The ISI coordinated the Afghan jihad against the Soviets in the ’80s and is now reportedly supporting the Taliban resurgence in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Waziristan. It is supposedly full of people from the religious parties who secretly fund and arm many jihadi outfits. So the idea of an ISI guy following me makes me nervous.

Go to dinner at the home of a retired general and his wife. They tell me not to worry as long as I’m not planning to go to Waziristan and report on the Taliban. “You’re not Daniel Pearl!” says the general’s wife. “He was doing something fishy, I’m convinced of it.”

Come home. Audrey tells me that yesterday, the intelligence guy went to the hotel’s HR department asking about me and my work. This threw the entire hotel into a panic. I have to leave as soon as possible. But there are two or three leads to possible rentals.

So tonight I must accept two things: 1.) I’m being followed. 2.) I’ll have to leave a home where I’ve become comfortable. Plus I have a personal disappointment I need to absorb.

One of the Kenyan guys on my hall tells me that for the first six months he was here, he was followed as well. 80% of the world’s heroin in grown in Afghanistan and a lot of it is trafficked through Pakistan by Nigerians, so Africans are presumed to be involved with drug trafficking. He hadn’t told me this before. He says that he doesn’t really blame the government for having these suspicions, since most of the African men in Pakistan are in fact involved in drug trafficking. Any and all Indians are followed as well.

When I fall asleep, I have another nightmare. I am in a rickshaw, moving my things around Lahore with two people I know from the New York gay world. Somehow my bags aren’t properly packed and everything spills out on the ground. I get annoyed with my friends and perceive this state of affairs to be their fault. They have misled me but it’s not clear how.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Call the ministry of information and broadcasting in Islamabad and register. I should have done this before but forgot. Call the U.S. consulate here in Lahore. Bryan Hunt, their chief officer, tells me that this is standard operating procedure, that Pakistani-national journalists are also followed by ISI trying to figure out what they are writing about. (Later I will learn from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that journalists are beaten up, chased, threatened, taken away for days at a time for questioning, and even killed, both by state agencies and by tribal militants, religious extremists, thuggish political parties and the like.) Hunt says I should call him if the guy tries to do something more serious like steal my computer.

Go see a potential housing option, living upstairs from a boisterous Australian expat woman, her taciturn Pakistani husband, and their daughter. It feels nice to be in a proper home where people have invested some energy in making the place look nice.

My fear has spiked and is now starting to feel more manageable. It helps to imagine my spy as Inspector Clouseau rather than as a shadowy genius. It’s weird how easy it is to adjust to being followed everywhere. I guess you can adjust to pretty much anything. I also don’t think my spy will observe anything particularly interesting. Subject eats bowl of corn flakes. Subject goes to Internet café. Subject sends emails and looks at three people’s Myspace profiles.

In the evening, dinner with Dorothy and three 19-year-old boys at pizza place Food Mood. On the drive over, Dorothy and I discuss Pakistan’s Christian minority. She says that General Zia nationalized Forman Christian College in 1979 and the IJT took over the campus. During those years, Christian men in Pakistan didn’t get educated. Now there’s a 30-year leadership gap. Christian women weren’t perceived as a threat and were allowed to go to school. A side effect of this is that now, in the 2000s, that there are more educated, professional Christian women than men. The marriage market is lopsided.

At Food Mood, I meet her three former students, all Muslim. Asad is an aspiring cricketer, Hassan is a web programmer and ladies’ man, Pervez is a college student and a member of a popular band. Hassan is constantly texting his girlfriend of one year, with whom he can’t spend Valentine’s Day “because it’s Pakistan.” Asad has three Internet “girlfriends” who live in Virginia. I say that girls like shy guys. “No they don’t,” says Hassan. “They like quiet guys. Quiet is mysterious, shy is insecure.”

Dorothy shows us a text she received for Valentine’s Day: “My dear I feel u every time in my heart. U stop me at this but my heart force me to do this. I’m ready to face every punishment towards from u but without hate. I’m sorry (Happy wallen times day) please I’m waiting answer please please M.A.”

News reports that at some restaurants, “fundos” harass unmarried couples during romantic dinners.

I sleep very deeply tonight. No bad dreams.


Thursday, February 15, 2007

Go to Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) to meet some professors. One says that my subject wouldn’t have found a perfect Islamic society, but she probably found a type of interpersonal warmth and social inclusion in Pakistan that she wouldn’t have found in America. Years ago, she was a Fulbright scholar in the U.S. She was never invited to a private home for dinner. I’ve been here two weeks and I have already had dinner in about five Pakistani homes. Like many liberals I meet here, she views the Taliban and the jihadi outfits as “American Frankensteins.” “America created them and then really seem to expect us to destroy them,” she says, “but how can we when they are so much stronger than us? Once you let the genie out of the bottle you can’t get it back in again.”

Another professor says that it is totally normal for low-level functionaries to follow journalists around and quiz the people they have met. I shouldn’t feel afraid.

At 6:30pm, meet Nadia, a woman who is renting out a room in the house where she lives with her mother. We have a great chat and it’s apparent that we will be friends. Nadia is Pakistani, age 31, a manager in an IT company. She’s just back from 11 years in the U.S., and she lives with her mother. I’m especially excited that there’s a cat here, General Shamikebab, roughly General Hamburger. Nadia tells me about being set up all the time for marriages. Her friend has a female cat named Gucci, and they joke about setting her up with General Shamikebab. Generals do tend to marry fashionable women. Nadia is not married but she wears a gold band on her left hand ring finger. I wonder what it means.

I want to be around Nadia, so I agree to rent a room with private bath and shared kitchen in her home in cc Defence for 13,000 rupees, or about $213 a month, plus gas and electricity. Defence Housing Authority is a private development owned by the military. It’s equivalent to a gated community; in addition to multiple checkpoints along the road, someone sleeps by the door at night. The light is much better in Nadia’s house.

It may be for the best that I move, since living with foreign workers has kept me separate from Pakistani society. Every night, one man sits sullenly on the couch while the rest of them text home, home being a girlfriend in Kenya, a son in London, a mother in the Philippines. The conversation is full of complaints about “them,” as in, “You can’t really educate them to want to work, can you?” or “They can’t do anything.”

The upside of living with temporary workers is that their emotional needs match my own. But maybe Nadia needs me too, for different reasons.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Sleep late again. I must admit that this whole ISI episode has been really frightening. I had an initial fear of Pakistan itself, which abated after a week. Now comes this fear, which will presumably abate as well. But I don’t really need to have more fear in my life.

In evening, go meet Nadia to finalize terms. Have dinner with her and her friend Abid at Mediterranean restaurant Carpe Diem. Already the conversation is different. Abid comments that Americans don’t play the sports that the rest of the world plays, like cricket and soccer. “But did you see how excited everyone was when the U.S. women’s soccer team played in the World Cup?” he asks. We have another discussion about how the U.S.-backed, ultra conservative and repressive Zia regime in the ’80s “basically screwed up three generations,” says Nadia. “There hasn’t been cultural or intellectual life in Pakistan since the ’60s, and the result is that the younger generation is just copying Bollywood and Hollywood,” she says, “they don’t know anything about our culture. It’s not their fault.”

This recalls what a LUMS professor said about the ’80s. “The conservative elite made a Faustian pact with Zia. We’ll concede public places to you if you let us do what you want in private. This depoliticized a large element of the elite. The children of the elite became very detached. Now they all go abroad after school.”


Saturday, February 17, 2007

Move to Nadia’s. After dinner, we watch “Music India,” a channel of music videos and previews for Indian movies. Dance numbers like “Shakalaka Boom Boom.” I do some work in front of the TV while Nadia falls asleep with the cat on her lap. One video opens with Bad Boy style onscreen textual prologue: “For 190 years the British made us dance to their tune. Now we’ll make them dance to ours.” This is roughly the theme of the movie Guru, which is just out on bootleg DVDs and wildly popular. It’s a biopic about an Indian industrialist who broke every law to build Shakti Corporation. As a son of the working class who wanted to help the workers, he made the elite uncomfortable. The movie implies that the English-speaking Indian elite tried to stymie him with regulations; he had to break the law for the people’s sake, much as Gandhi broke unjust laws. The movie ends with Guru escaping prosecution and addressing a stadium full of his cheering employees. “Do you want to become the biggest company in the world?” he asks the cheering crowd. “Do you want to let them know we’re coming?”

Go with Nadia, Abid, Muhammad, and Asif to godawful launch party for new telecom. On the way to the party we drink scotch and water in paper cups in the car, like teenagers. Abid is excitable like a child. Asif is more lethargic, but he keeps touching my leg and putting his arm around me. Bad dancing reminds me of party scenes in Eric Rohmer movies. Muhammad has a crush on a local model.


Sunday, February 18, 2007

Go to interview MJ for the third time. My rickshaw driver on the way over is Christian and tells me so excitedly. At MJ’s, feel more and more emotionally connected to her. When I leave, feel a profound sadness that older ways of being will die. Her family members treat her with kid gloves. They remind me of zookeepers with an endangered species. I don’t know if serious, traditional piety can compete against romantic jihadi culture, feel-good New Age hokum, or watered down modernism. Maybe it can. Go to Muhammad’s where Nadia is hanging out with Salima. I am spending most of my time with Pakistanis now. Smoke a sheesha that seems to have some hash in it. We talk about faculty clash at LUMS between religious math and science profs and secular socialists in the humanities and social sciences. It’s sad that there’s antagonism, because both sides have their role to play. Salima can help introduce me to a lot of people. She’s writing her dissertation about an uprising of largely Christian Punjabi peasant tenant farmers. It is managing to stand up to the state and claim ownership of a huge tract of land. It has done so by using the media and mobilizing Christians all over the world to come to their defense. It’s a grassroots version of land reform. Christian churches are the strongest institutions in this area so they are the hub of organizing, like the Black church was for the civil rights movement in the United States.


Monday, February 19, 2007

Two-day conference at University of the Punjab, “Perspectives on Religion, Politics, and Society in South Asia,” organized by the university’s Pakistan Study Centre and Dept. of History and Pakistan Studies. Four top South Asianists are on the opening panel: Francis Robinson of the University of London, Marvin Weinbaum, formerly of the U.S. State Dept, now at the University of Illinois, Anita Weiss of the University of Oregon, and Hafeez Malik of Villanova. This is the prestige panel, scholars who teach at wealthy universities in the West. The auditorium is full, it’s standing room only. I arrive late and miss Francis Robinson. Marvin Weinbaum says Pakistan has an “anemic civil culture” where the “sense of obligation to participate in the political process is weak.” For Pakistanis there is a “lack of a sense of efficacy that their participation can be consequential, a deficiency of the public trust, a passive acceptance of corruption.” Pakistani people vest their confidence in “larger than life figures” not in “institutions or organizations.” They “feel helpless” and “embrace conspiracy theories.” In a study of political engagement in nine Muslim countries, Pakistan performed poorly. Only 4% said political activities were important, whereas 80% said religion was important. 50% of the population has had a political discussion at all, 40% does so occasionally, and 10% have them regularly. Weinbaum identifies five elite subcultures in Pakistani political life: military, bureaucratic, Islamist, feudal, and cosmopolitan. I’ve been living with the cosmopolitans and speaking with the Islamists. I have met one general and one zamindar, or feudal landlord. What about the bureaucracy? Maybe my spy represents the bureaucracy, he’s my silent and frightening overseer.

Anita Weiss has been coming to Pakistan for thirty years. She says she sees a shift from personal piety to public piety, a stricter Islam now than the pir and shrine centered practices of the past.  Her talk focuses on North West Frontier Province, where in 2002 a coalition of religious parties won a majority in the provincial assembly and passed a Hisba Bill to implement an Islamic system that would “advocate virtue and forbid evil.” Pakistan’s Council on Islamic Ideology said that that language was too vague. (One evil to be eliminated was the requirement that a man get the permission of his first wife before taking a second wife.) Weiss sees polarization and cultural wars brewing.

Hafeez Malik gives a talk on the U.S. “security architecture for South Asia,” based on his forthcoming Oxford University Press book U.S. Relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan: The Imperial Dimensions. The U.S. “is an imperial system,” he says, “and a republic,” a unique and unprecedented combination. The empire is maintained through diplomacy, military bases, a conviction that U.S. interests extend throughout the globe and into outer space, and through the economic system of the WTO, IMF, and World Bank. The U.S. has great power, he says, but also a sense of vulnerability about itself, due to the looming threat of China, “a rival in the making,” the growth of the E.U., and the spread of terrorism and al-Qaeda. The U.S. needs Pakistan’s help to contain China. He hopes that U.S. policy can shift from support of Pakistan’s military to nation building and development assistance.

I’m used to a nicey-nice veil of decency being thrown over the U.S. and its intentions. It’s bracing to be in a place where everyone acknowledges that the U.S. is just a superpower acting exclusively in its own interests. That’s what power does, that’s how it works, it’s foolish to imagine otherwise. The University of the Punjab’s vice chancellor speaks at the end of the panel. His hope is that the region will find a way of “rejecting U.S. unipolarity without being antagonistic.” He sees China as a possible second superpower. During a break, several people ask me what am I doing here. I’m not sure myself. I guess I’m trying to get a different perspective.

The United States has had friendly neighbors, great geography, postwar advantages, and it has made a lot of its luck at others’ expense. As far as I can make out, Pakistan survived partition only to see its best political leaders die too soon. It has been run by an oligarchy of elites, including a British-style military, an unreconstructed feudal class, and a tiny coterie of industrialists. A very poor countryside is attached to a dynamic city, Karachi, that some say should become an autonomous city-state like Singapore. An Islamic narrative proved insufficient to hold Pakistan's linguistically diverse population together; in 1971, half its population seceded and formed Bangladesh. In the 1970s, a lot of Pakistan’s wealthier families left for the Middle East and elsewhere to avoid Bhutto’s nationalization policies. In the 1980s, the U.S. backed the right-wing military regime of General Zia ul-Haq. Under Zia, the “jihad sector” opened for business. With U.S. and Saudi money, Zia’s intelligence agencies trained tens of thousands of religious Rambos to go fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Zia demolished the political parties, “Islamized” education, compromised the judiciary, and pushed social and religious values towards patriarchy and fundamentalism. Everywhere else in South Asia, the fertility rate plunged, but Pakistani women continued to produce 5 or 6 children. 50% of Pakistan’s population is under 14. The number of illiterate Pakistanis has doubled since 1951, while the number of illiterate women has tripled, due to population increases. Almost forty percent of the population lives below the poverty line, an increase from a decade back.

After the Soviets left Afghanistan, some of the religious Rambos went to fight in Kashmir; others started sectarian terror campaigns within Pakistan. The U.S. cut its aid to Pakistan at the end of the ’80s, ostensibly over nuclear weapons, although Pakistanis argue that we turned a blind eye to their nuclear ambitions throughout the ’80s. Even more government spending went to the defense sector. When Pakistan tested its nuclear weapons in 1998, the U.S. imposed sanctions. After September 11, the friendship with the U.S. was on again. A psychiatry professor will explain to me that the Pakistani military seizes power whenever there is some kind of crisis and foreign money to be siphoned away from it. When the crisis ends and the funding dries up, the military withdraws, allowing the democratic forces deal with the blowback.

It’s not hard to find this history. But it’s hard to retain it in my flabby American mind.

At the end of the evening is a celebration of the English translation of the memoirs of Justice Javed Iqbal, the son of the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal. A University of the Punjab history professor lauds Iqbal’s book and its candor about the ’80s. “We retreated,” he says, “we provided space to the extremists. If we had done our job, obscurantists would not have been able to control society. We played into the hands of big powers.”


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Article in today’s paper says that a religious extremist has murdered a female government minister. He doesn’t believe that women should be in positions of power.

Today’s speakers are mostly scholars from India and Pakistan. Pakistan’s public colleges and universities are notoriously bad. The day’s events are held in smaller rooms. Two older scholars are discussants on panels of younger academics. Each gives a short, sad statement that seems calculated to instill guilt in the younger generation in a melancholy, parental way. Syed Aljazuddin says: “Our generation is too old to change. To the next I say, Islam is the epicenter of our culture, not the epicenter of all human civilization.” Tariq Rehman says, “When I was young, Pakistan faced both India and the Middle East. But now it just faces the Middle East. Will the younger generation push narrow-mindedness and intolerance? If you choose to do so, it’s all right. People like me will be dead in a few years.”

During a tea break, Khalid, a history lecturer at the University of Balochistan in Quetta, tells me that suicide bombing is big business now. For every 16 year old who consents to die for Allah, organizers get thousands of dollars from abroad. So every bomb jacket comes with two remotes, one that can be activated from a distance if the boy decides he doesn’t want to commit suicide after all. A graduate student tells me that in rural areas, madrassah boys are sometimes coerced into suicide bombing. Organizers force them to do it by threatening to “pick up” (kidnap and disappear) their mothers and sisters.

At the end of the conference on Tuesday, I meet Shahid, a journalist for the Sunday edition of the News. Because I am a white woman, he assumes I am Anita Weiss. I help him locate Professor Weiss, and a few hours later, I help him interview her. Shahid is an emotional guy. His questions can be accusatory and he asks a lot of hypotheticals. Weiss talks about institution building and consensus building, Shahid says that it’s pretty hard to build democratic institutions under a military regime. I know Zia repressed the political parties, but does Musharraf? I thought he was one of the good guys. Hmm, yeah, I guess he does marginalize the parties now that I think about it. When Shahid goes on too long about the destructive legacies of British and American involvement in the region, Weiss tells him he needs to focus on Pakistan. “No foreign hand is going to intervene and get Pakistan out of its situation,” she says. Which is true, harsh but true.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I’ve got major information overload from the past two days. But Khalid keeps calling me to set up an interview. I figure that he wants to try his luck as well as speak his mind, and sure enough towards the end of the interview he tries to kiss me. (“Don’t you want to enjoy? Why not?”) But he accepts it when I say no. He says that I will want to later on. The interview was useful though. He told me a lot about Punjabi economic dominance and Baloch, Sindhi, and Pashtun resentment. When the Arabs of al-Qaeda were in Afghanistan, he claims, they dominated Mullah Omar and the Taliban, depriving Pashtuns of their democratic rights, even forcing Pashtun girls to become their wives. (A journalist will later tell me that al-Qaeda came to Afghanistan BEFORE the Taliban arrived; the guys who are currently in power in Afghanistan are the ones who invited bin Laden. So much for popular understanding of recent Afghan history.) A Pashtun separatist movement is growing that wants the NWFP to leave Pakistan and join Afghanistan. Khalid is happy that American interests and Afghan interests are the same right now. That bodes well for his people. He holds out his hand for me to shake, as if to cement the alliance between our countries. He says that I should come to Quetta and see things for myself. I don’t know. I’m scared of the radicals there and I’m scared of getting hit on again.

Khalid also quizzes me about American young people. Why aren’t they more repulsed by U.S. foreign and economic policy? “What is this, they just want to have the friendships and the entertainment?” I’m kind of dumbstruck. I just say, well, on an unconscious level you know something’s wrong, but you also just don’t want to know about it, and, uh, so, yeah, you just ignore it.

After Khalid leaves I realize that I’m exhausted. It’s the accumulated stress from five sources: One, my general fear of being an American in Pakistan. Two, I’m a single American woman in a place where single American women are perceived as sluts and as walking green cards. Three, there’s “the man in my life,” my intelligence agent. Four, there’s the stress inherent in being forced to see things from a different perspective. On one level, I retreat from all this. I just want to have my privileged white girl perspective and my privileged white girl interests and concerns. On other levels, I want to know more. The fifth source of fatigue is the creeping awareness that being a child of privilege has made me lazy and stupid.

I go have late afternoon coffee with Ahmad at the Pancake House. He spent his childhood in Libya, and runs a small advertising firm. He describes his work, speaking very quickly, with an air of irritation and boredom. He must give this spiel a lot for his work. I don’t know why, but I like him. He seems observant and watchful, but in a relaxed way. He’s also a little bit cynical, which is a pleasure after the fake niceness of New York hipsters. He seems restless, very intelligent, and a little sad. He mentions that he has a quick temper.

I try to explain my work to him. I feel kind of inept. It’s the story of a very idealistic woman. American history, Pakistani history. You know, ideals versus actions, how we rationalize our actions to ourselves.

“The media, that’s how we rationalize ourselves to ourselves,” Ahmad says. “Isn’t that ironic.” What is that supposed to mean? I guess he means that I’m part of the self-justifying U.S. media.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

My goal is to have a day at home, but apparently that is overly ambitious. I do my laundry. The servants’ children stare at me while I hang up my clothes to dry. I walk towards them in a zombie pose. They laugh and scream. I fail to wash my hair, however, since instead I get swept up into another day of chaos and randomness. The Australian woman calls me to say that I have her house key and she needs it back. I take a rickshaw to her place to return it, get in a fight with driver over the fee. Surayya, a history grad student I met at the conference, texts me to meet her at the Gulberg McDonald’s. The Australian says that the McDonald’s is on the way to her gym and that she’ll drop me off. While her driver drives, she sits in the back of the car with me, talking about herself nonstop.

At McDonald’s, I interview Surayya. She must be from a slightly lower economic tier than the elites I’ve been meeting, most of whom have been educated abroad. Her English is not great, she is from a smaller city, she doesn’t have a driver, and she goes to the not terribly illustrious University of the Punjab. She is clearly a feminist and a liberal. She has some of the cosmopolitan vibe, but her opinions about history and politics are emotional and passionate. This might create some problems for her as an academic. She doesn’t have a detached scholarly attitude. She seems directionless but is clearly very smart and there’s a determination to her. She wants to go to school in the U.S. or the U.K. but she needs a scholarship to do so; the University of the Punjab doesn’t do any academic or career advising. I wonder how she would fare in a Western university with her third-rate education. Being in Pakistan is about coming face to face with squandered human capital.

We get in her cousin’s car and run errands. I can tell that speaking English is taxing to her; her initial enthusiasm has faded and she seems spaced out. We go to an education expo at the Pearl Continental Hotel, one of the five-star places. Foreign universities have set up booths with information for local students. Most of the colleges here are from the U.K. Australia has the second largest section, then the United Arab Emirates. Most of the schools are pretty third-rate places that will take students’ money but don’t give great educations. There is only one college from the U.S. We find a booth for the United States Education Foundation of Pakistan, a U.S.-funded NGO that helps Pakistanis get Fulbrights and other American scholarships. This year, the U.S. government has vastly expanded the Pakistani Fulbright program. It’s become the largest Fulbright program in the world. A recent recipient laughs about the increase and says it’s about American guilt.

At the USEF booth, Surayya speaks with an upper-class, Western-educated Pakistani. He takes one look at her and seems to conclude that she isn’t Fulbright material. “When you’re a Fulbright scholar, a lot is expected of you,” he says.

Outside, we wait for Surayya’s cousin to pick us up. We watch a woman slowly maneuver her way through the front door of the hotel. She’s wearing an elaborately jeweled hood and her clothes are so weighed down with metallic decoration and jewels that she can barely walk. To me, she looks like she’s wearing chain mail. She’s probably on her way to get married inside the hotel. “Wow!!” says Surayya excitedly. I ask her if she has ever met anyone she would want to marry, and she says no. She doesn’t think a man can see a woman as his equal. “It’s that male ego,” she says, “directly or indirectly, they will let you know that they think they know best.”

Surayya drops me off at Dorothy’s house. We pick up an American couple and go for a tour of Liberty Market. Then Dorothy and I go home to her place for TV and pizza. I’m getting to know her a little better. She’s a pretty interesting woman: a 42-year old military brat, childless and never married, in Atlanta for 20 years working as a teacher. She’s a very serious Christian, and surprised to meet one from New York City. I admit that my friends make fun of me for going to church.

I tell her about my day with Surayya. Dorothy says that the bulk of Pakistani universities are unimpressive; the educational system is too rigid, focused on memorization and pleasing the teacher. People’s natural ability to think creatively gets crushed. I notice a book on her coffee table. It’s a reinterpretation of the parable of the prodigal son using new scholarship on the Middle Eastern peasant family. A missionary friend gave it to her. The book’s back cover suggests that this interpretation challenges the Muslim insistence that the parable demonstrates the lack of need for an intermediary between man and God. Dorothy refers often to “grace,” to the psychology of Christianity, our vision of a loving God who suffered the punishments we deserve for our sins. Growing up Muslim, she says, is tougher. “It’s really about doing more good than bad in the world,” she says, “and even if you balance those scales, it’s still up to Allah to decide whether you get to paradise. He could just say, no, I don’t think so.”

Dorothy says that her students often try to start a foreign policy debate with her, but she “refuses to rise to the bait.” She thinks that one has to be realistic. The U.S. has to put its interests first. The problem is that we think exclusively in the short term, and we cannot foresee the problems our policies cause in the long term. I don’t know. I feel like we lost a lot of our old American skepticism and irreverence during the Cold War. We watch American Idol. Apparently there’s an Indian Idol where contestants cry every five minutes.

Dorothy drives me home. Nadia and I watch the last half-hour of Must Love Dogs on an Indian movie channel. It’s hard to believe how bad it is.


Friday, February 23, 2007

Work at home. At 5:45pm, Ahmad and I go out for smoothies. I describe my day with Surayya at the education expo. He says that he finds it hard to locate graphic designers who can direct themselves. When I tell him about the bride at Pearl Continental, he explains that elaborate month-long weddings with enormous dowries made sense in Hindu culture, since women can’t receive inheritances. But they don’t make sense in Islam, since women can inherit. Pakistanis hold onto the practice because it’s been the culture forever.

A local high school girl comes up to us. She says that she is doing a photo essay for a school competition. The subject is “cultural deviancy.” May she take our photo?

She does. It’s an embarrassing moment. Ahmad says, “I think it’s true, we are deviating from our culture. But I think values are the more important thing. You can change culture but keep the same values.”


Saturday, February 24, 2007

Trouble sleeping. The change of season has brought mosquitoes at night. Today I will take a day off, meaning no interviews, conferences, no damsels in distress, preferably no leaving the house. Wash hair, go food shopping with Nadia at PotPourri in Y Block Market, a commercial area that serves several sectors in the Defence development. Nadia curses a lot at the other drivers: “Idiot!” “Asshole!” While we are driving, four or five young boys run onto the road in pursuit of a stray kite. They are yelling their heads off. Today and tomorrow are Basant, a traditional Punjabi spring festival. As far as I can make out, a type of spinach with a yellow flower blooms at this time of year, so everyone wears yellow clothes. Traditionally, families throw Basant gatherings. Now everyone complains about ugly corporate Basant parties.  Basant is best known for competitive kite flying from rooftops and open spaces. When someone loses control of a kite, kids run after it, sometimes off the edges of rooftops or into traffic. Dozens of children die every year; this year there are 8 fatalities. Two years ago, some kite manufacturers replaced the string with sharp, flat wire coated with particles of broken glass, intended to cut competitors’ kite strings. One such kite went astray. It drifted across a road, pulling the wire tautly about five feet above the ground. A man and his four year old rode a motorbike directly into the wire, slitting the child’s throat and killing him. Basant was cancelled for a year. This year, the government supposedly caught the wire manufacturers. Still, every motorcyclist has attached a plastic semicircle of rubber piping from the handlebars to the back of the seat to deflect stray wires.

Nadia and I buy groceries, mosquito repellent, cheap bootleg DVDs (I get The Queen with Helen Mirren for 100 rupees, or $1.50), freshly baked nan with potato/meat fillings for 15/30 rupees (25c/50c). Nadia goes to her tailor to have some buttonholes sewn. After shopping, I take a nap. When I wake up, I go downstairs to the living room, where Nadia is having a girls’ night with Saadia and Rabia. They switch from Urdu to English when I arrive. They have finished dinner and are about to eat brownies. The conversation turns to, what else, romantic love. Why is it one just wants the unattainable? Why would an educated Punjabi man marry a 20-year-old Balochi bimbo? Why doesn’t a man want a woman who is his professional and intellectual equal? We discuss the merits of various Jane Austen adaptations. Rabia says that she just wants a man like Mr. Darcy. He’s so appealing and yet he’s like an actual person, not unrealistically perfect. I mention that a friend of mine in New York is newly engaged. She applied rational techniques to find a man who was marriage material, such as exploring more conventional or mainstream social circles than the bohemian world of her friends.

Saadia understands my meaning immediately. “Superficial people!” she says. I mention that my friend decided to bring a more practical mentality into the world of relationships, like recognizing the nature of demand, where it waxes and where it wanes, or acknowledging that love is a numbers game, that dating more people makes it more likely that you’ll find someone suited to you. Nadia agrees. “In New York, a girl can go on a date with a different guy every weekend!” she says. Rabia adds longingly that “if it doesn’t work out, she’ll never see him again!” Nadia says, “When a man is ready to marry he’ll marry whatever girl is in front of him.” Saadia protests that she wouldn’t want to marry someone who was only motivated by the time he had reached in his life. Rabia, who is two years out of a painful divorce, despairs of meeting anyone ever. “Everyone else our age is married, most have one or two kids. So when you are 30 and unmarried, you have to say, why me? I must have made some bad choice along the way. Now I’m just not willing to go through that kind of pain again.” She looks miserable. “You know what those marriages are like,” says Nadia. “Would you really want to be in one of them?” I mention two (very beautiful) women I know who have perfected their sensibility and aesthetic, who praise others as often as possible, who err on the conservative side in terms of taking emotional risks. Although they occasionally fall hopelessly in love, they try to avoid vulnerability in general. Many men go nuts for them. Rabia is annoyed. “I don’t want to hear about these extreme cases! I just want to know, why can’t a normal person like me, who’s not too repulsive, find a nice normal person, who’s not too repulsive.” “You’re successful, men are intimidated by you,” says Nadia.

It is the same conversation I have all the time in the U.S. Except for the part when the three women mention that new brides enter their husbands’ homes where their mothers-in-law treat them like servants. Have you ever had a bad experience with a boyfriend’s mother? Rabia asks me. Most of my relationships have been with women, but I don’t feel like saying so. I avoid using pronouns but mention that in a certain tough situation, my “friend” did stand up for me, albeit under duress. “See, American men stand up to their mothers,” says Rabia, “like in Monster-in-Law.” “Or that recent movie with Meryl Streep as a therapist whose son dates her patient,” says Saadia. “The problem is we have standards,” says Nadia, “we’ve been abroad. We’ve seen how life can be lived.” “I just hope we’re not still having this conversation five years from now,” says Saadia. I’m struck by their romantic ideals. Their attitude is very different from that of Abida, who views men as ridiculous children, and marriage as a farcical but necessary enterprise sustained by affairs and deceptions. It’s late, time for the guests to leave. “We’re like Sex in the City,” says Nadia. “A Pakistani Sex in the City!” We all have a good cackle as Rabia and Saadia put on their shawls. After going to her room to put on makeup and do her hair, Nadia heads out (at 12:30am) for a friend’s Basant party. Three weeks have passed since I arrived. The stress of my move is over, but loneliness and homesickness are starting to accumulate. I go upstairs to my room and watch The Queen on my laptop. Tomorrow night is Oscars night in the U.S.


Sunday, February 25, 2007

Go to Avari Hotel for religious lectures by the Sufi Sheikh Nuh Keller. Keller is an American, born in the northwest in 1954. He studied philosophy and classical Arabic at the University of Chicago and UCLA, converted to Islam at al-Azhar in Egypt, and became a respected scholar and Sufi. He now lives in Jordan. I arrive just in time for a two-hour break.

Waiting in the lobby, I sit down next to an Englishwoman who lives in a nearby town, teaching at a Bible college. She’s here to have lunch with some other Christians. While she and her friends eat at the hotel’s restaurant, I go for a poolside lunch with their driver, a Pakistani Christian named Daniel. (Some Christians I meet here use the Anglicized versions of Biblical names with their coreligionists and Pakistani names with everyone else.) I tell him I’m studying an anti-Western intellectual; this interests him. He and I get into the usual “was Osama bin Laden a CIA agent?” debate. He says yes, I say no. I have this conversation all the time here. Daniel insists that there are “documents” that prove that the CIA employed bin Laden. This is false, but because of Arundhati Roy’s statements, and because it just sounds good, many, many people believe this to be true. In his oral history The Osama bin Laden I Know, Osama bin Laden expert Peter Bergen goes out of his way to clarify that while the CIA trained and funded the largely Afghan and Pakistani mujahideen, they did not work with the Arabs who came to Afghanistan. Zawahiri himself has repeatedly stated that Arab jihadis received no CIA money. The Arab jihadis of the 1980s were very anti-American. Because of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Osama bin Laden had called for a boycott of American products. They were also kind of wacky, fighting nonsensical battles to prove that profound devotion to God could overpower conventional military strategy about what battles were winnable and what battles weren’t. They endured extreme, and pointless, losses. A lot of the Afghans thought that the Arabs were nuts. Arabs were divided amongst themselves as to their fundamental purpose in Afghanistan. There was apparently a big meeting where the Palestinian leader Abdullah Azzam, the force behind Jihad magazine, said “there is no other agenda” than Afghan liberation. Other Arabs disagreed; the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri said the Afghan war was the first battle in a global jihad for worldwide Islamic supremacy. Bin Laden was initially in Azzam’s camp, but switched to Zawahiri’s during the war. People said that “those crazy Egyptians” had gotten to him. When I tell Daniel, “the CIA funded the mujahideen,” his face lights up. But when I add, “but they didn’t fund the Arab Afghans,” he frowns. It doesn’t matter. Nothing I say will change his mind. The idea of Osama the CIA agent has a life of its own. If Daniel had said, “CIA money vastly increased the marketing and promotion of the idea of a radical, militant jihad for Islam,” or “the CIA created a jihadi monster that eviscerated Afghanistan and damaged Pakistan as well,” I would have agreed. But no one ever says that. It always crystallizes around the person of Osama bin Laden. “Did you see the video of Saddam Hussein’s hanging?” Daniel asks. “He was a cool cat.”

It’s time for Keller’s question and answer session. I go up to a 2nd floor meeting room, where a cloth-covered divider separates men and women. I sit with the ladies. Every woman wears the hijab. Many also wear the niqab, often with fashionable glasses showing through a narrow eye slit. Two women, the most learned ones, wear a soft black felt hat with four long floppy bit of cloth that end in points. There are several babies and children in the room. The women seem quite affluent. Many are from English-speaking families and have been educated abroad. Everyone is Pakistani except for one white woman, all in black with a baby in her lap. One woman is wearing a Louis Vuitton-pattern headscarf. There’s a general vibe of luxury-brand religion. Keller has spoken at Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, and Cambridge. He sits cross-legged on a dais in front of the crowd, wearing a white rounded hat that looks like a smaller Shiite turban, a grey overcoat, a white undercoat, a large pinky ring, and beige leather ankle boots. He is in his early 50s but looks younger. He prays before he begins to speak, which he does softly and slowly.

Keller reads aloud questions audience members have written on white index cards. One question involves the development of someone who grew up as the child of an oppressive, damaging mother. In such cases, “we have to work on ourselves,” says Keller. But this state of affairs should be avoided if at all possible. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” From the women comes “How to make children understand not to play PlayStation and computer games?” Keller advises: “Say to them, what does it do? It warps the brain, makes you unable to think clearly as an adult. Look into the matter. See what researchers have said. Provide alternatives. If it’s haram, provide several halals. In yesteryear, people used to read aloud to each other. It made people eloquent. You can learn to run a computer in what, three days? It takes time to learn to interact socially, to share, to learn, to be an educated person.” Keller goes on a tangent. “To learn hadith and fiqh and tasawwuf, any Islamic discipline, find the person who is the strongest. Don’t take knowledge from someone’s who’s inwardly corrupt. Be careful of poisoned knowledge, it takes time to get it out of your system. Find a teacher who has no secret departments in his life. No teacher is unprotected from sin, but Satan doesn’t have much hold over [a good teacher]. They are crushed by the fact that they committed a sin, heartbroken by it. An enormous sin happens because you take this step then this step then this step. Then you commit the enormity. You take many steps before adultery or murder is possible.” Another question from the women is “I understand the leadership of man in the household. But why does the Prophet (peace be upon him) say wives should bow down to their husbands?” Keller answers, “This is Arab hyperbole. What it means is that a wife owes more gratitude to her husband than she conventionally expresses. What does a woman need? Love. What does a man need? Respect.” He recommends Michele Weiner-Davis’ A Woman's Guide to Changing Her Man: Without His Even Knowing It and an old marriage manual from the ’60s called Fascinating Womanhood. “A lot of it is common sense,” says Keller. “A marriage will not be successful by kafir or Muslim standards unless a woman respects her husband. It’s what every wife knew in the olden days. Much has been lost since the olden days.”

After giving this answer, Keller takes a break. Men and women gather for separate discussions of Hanafi Fiqh, the most prevalent school of Islamic law in Pakistan. Ustadha Hedaya, the woman who leads our discussion, begins by saying, “Sharia was made as a mercy for the people. We benefit from the application of the law. Allah doesn’t benefit.” Women ask Ustadha about their dilemmas. One goes to a fashion and design school where she has a hard time maintaining Islamic practices. Ustadha says, “Go someplace where you can practice your din [faith]. It’s not ok to be somewhere where you can’t practice your din. The sharia’s very black or white. The din is very clear. The problem with taking baby steps is that you don’t know if you’re going to die in disobedience. Worshipping Allah means doing it His way. You can convert, I know because I’m a convert from America. It’s about your own determination and understanding.” Marriage and divorce are the women’s major concerns. One very pretty young woman asks, “Does a woman who divorces have a bad character? What if you try and try but can’t make it work?” Ustadha says, “Marriage should be ‘live in kindness and equity’ or ‘divorce in kindness and equity.’ Truly Islam is the answer. When you have two feet in the din, the din is easy. If you have one foot in and one foot out, it’s hard. The problem today is that we live in an instant society. Good marriages and bad marriages are made, they don’t happen. You need good Islamic etiquette. It’s un-Islamic for the wife to throw things. It’s un-Islamic for a man to hit a woman. If the two people behave like Muslims, there will be no problems. The problem is we live in a time of Hollywood, everyone’s in love with love, with the chemical that gets released in your brain when you fall in love.” She recommends an article by C. S. Lewis called “No Right to Happiness.”

Then she continues: “We let love have carte blanche but we don’t let anger or hunger have carte blanche. You leave your husband because the new love will be ‘forever.’ But ‘forever’ went where? Two months, five years? There’s no story of love being there forever. But still we believe it. We say, ‘I’m the exception.’ What is the result of that? It’s a society of women raising children by themselves. The one who loses is the woman. She gets stuck with the child.” A woman’s phone goes off. Her ringtone is R. E. M.’s “Losing My Religion.” “If your marriage is ruining your din, you should get out of it,” she says. “But a woman sometimes says ‘I want a divorce’ when what she means is ‘I’m hurt.’ She has no way to say how upset she is except by saying ‘I want a divorce.’ But because of the bedroom, there’s a lot you can forgive of each other. With distance, you realize that it wasn’t that bad. Divorce is a solution but it’s the last solution.” A woman complains that her husband insists that in Pakistani culture, everybody gets married and then has affairs. Men have “four or five girlfriends or mistresses that they support or enjoy”; wives are expected to do the same. I have heard this before, that upper-class wives keep themselves busy by having “sex with various husbands.” “This is not an Islamic society!” she exclaims. Ustadha again emphasizes that a woman is responsible for her immortal soul. “A woman has to think, what is her priority. She has to choose Islam.” The women insist that divorce will cause financial ruin and social ostracism. They would have to return to being a burden on their parents or siblings. “Go to a religious family who will protect you,” says Ustadha, “There is ignorance in thinking you are powerless.” Today’s mishmash of female grievance has not been that different from last night’s, until the final question raises the specter of polygamy. Ustadha admits that this is not possible for most women. “In some situations it works,” she says. “Most women have a hard time with it. Allah created us with emotions. But you shouldn’t be the slave of your emotions. A man can’t control who he loves, but he can be just to both wives. What’s not possible, shariah doesn’t ask you to do.”

There’s a two-hour break before Keller begins his final session. I walk to Ferozson’s bookstore, where I buy a book (Gabriel’s Wing, Annemarie Schimmel’s study of Iqbal) and a map of Lahore. I want to check out St. Hilda’s, the Christian guesthouse where Daniel lives. It’s right next to the Cathedral of the Resurrection, where the 5pm English language service has begun. I attend the service. I wonder if too much exposure to another religion will make Christianity start to seem bogus to me. The cathedral walls are covered with plaques from the time of the British Raj:


The bells in this tower were erected as a memorial of Queen Victoria. Easter even 1904, HJ Spence Gray, Chaplain.


To the Glory of God and In Memory of Fletcher James Ivens, late deputy locomotive supdt, Northwestern Railway, third son of John Ovens, of Eydon Northhamptonshire. Died in the Mediterranean on his way home, May 1, 1897, Aged 48 years. By the Members of the Locomotive and Carriage Depts to which He Belonged.


In loving memory of Sophie Muriel, ‘Many daughters have done virtuously but thou excellest them all.’


Missionary Thomas Valpy French, ‘A lonely witness of the kingdom of Christ,’ May 14, 1891.


I exit the cathedral and walk over to St. Hilda’s, a former deaconess house. The nuns’ quarters have been converted into rooms for rent. When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a nun, so it’s exciting to be inside a real convent. The rent would be cheaper here (9,000 vs. 13,000 rupees) but it’s far more austere than my current spot. I file it away as an option for later. On the walk back to the Avari Hotel, I pass a bird catcher, a man standing in the road holding a net full of small sparrows. For 10 rupees he will let one go free. Apparently, their wings are clipped so they can’t get far. A fat man in shalwaar kameez on a motorbike sees me gawking and drives up alongside me. He asks me what I’m doing in Lahore. “I’m a journalist,” I say. “A journalist? Who do you want to talk to? OSAMA BIN LADEN?????” No, I say insipidly, I’m just interviewing nice people. Nice people! “Where are you from?” “New York City.” “NO SHIT! I live in Queens, in Woodside. I run a limousine company there.” My grandmother grew up in Sunnyside, one neighborhood over. I jump on the back of his motorbike and he takes me back to the Avari. I’m not sure why but I feel safe around him. Maybe he seems harmless because he’s fat. We exchange numbers; his name is Sunny. Tomorrow is a book fair. We agree to go together at 2pm.

I go back upstairs for more Sheikh Nuh Keller. While speaking, Keller faces the men. He never even glances at the women. This lecture seems like a collection of his thoughts about the ideal person. He speaks of the “person who possesses a living heart, not a dead heart, a hard heart.” He’s the “easygoing, flexible person, easy to get along with, quick to reach an agreement.” He speaks of places where people are being “coloniated,” being slandered. “If there’s slander, get up and leave.” He advises “abandonment of long hours yukking it up with the guys into the night. Talking about nothing. Satan [he pronounces it Shay-tan] always has a lot to say. [A man who leaves is] free of the need for anything except the fact that Allah has given him everything. One comfortable with others, who others are comfortable with. At ease with himself inwardly. He loves solitude. He detests gossip. The heart of my believing servant who is humble and serene. Such a heart, this is the secret of the entire world.” Between hearts and egos, he says, “there is an oppositeness.” The actions of ego people are “fiendish, hellish. They have effects that are perceptible in the world, cause trial and tribulation.” He hates the arrogant person “[who claims]  ‘Everything is possible for me because I’m a realized Wadi, a realized Sufi.’ What lasts is helping a widow do her shopping. That lasts forever. Not the clouds parting above. What good is that going to do?” At the front of the women’s section, a small boy sits up very straight while he listens. “Look at how the child is sitting,” says the woman in the Louis Vuitton hijab. She is giggling. Keller’s manner and bearing make me think of “Becoming Muslim,” his description of his conversion which I read last night on an Islamic website. He mentions his reading at the University of Chicago: “I read ‘Kojèves Introduction to the Reading of Hegel’, in which he explained that for Hegel, philosophy did not culminate in the system, but rather in the Wise Man, someone able to answer any possible question on the ethical implications of human actions. This made me consider our own plight in the twentieth century, which could no longer answer a single ethical question.”

“Wise Man” is the effect Keller seems to be going for. In the question and answer period that follows, someone asks, How to purify the heart? Keller answer is, “Leave the haram. Find out what Allah wants. Do it. Leave anything that has no advantage to you. Whatever you do for your own ego will fail. Whatever you do for Allah will succeed. Don’t be inept or incapable. Seek Allah’s help. Maybe we want something but the other thing is better for us. If you show bitterness or oppress the servants of Allah, this overrules good deeds,” he concludes. “If you show acceptance of what Allah has destined and forgive other people, you don’t hold a grudge, this overrules bad deeds.”

A few days later, I interview a poet who says that he’s skeptical of any contemporary sheikh. “Especially the foreign ones,” he says, “there’s tons of them.”

Take rickshaw home. Nadia and Saadia are watching Salaam I-Ishq, an outlandish Indian romantic comedy. Throughout the movie they constantly criticize the actors’ looks. Look at her double chin. Look at his nose. Is he wearing lipstick?

Ahmad texts me. He asks about the lecture. I tell him about the “women need love, men need respect” thing. He replies that that makes sense, since men have huge egos.


Monday, February 26, 2007

Meet Sunny at 2pm for lunch and the book fair. We don’t stay more than 15 minutes before he proposes a ride on his motorbike to Wagah on the India-Pakistan border, where there is a daily ceremony in which rival border guards try to intimidate each other with prolonged cries and synchronized marching. It’s a 30-minute ride away and it starts in an hour. We get on his bike, I put my arms around his fat belly, and we’re off. He zigzags around donkeys pulling carts along the road. “I hate these motherfucking donkeys,” says Sunny. “You never know where they’re going to go.” One random donkey runs down the road. “Piece of shit!” It’s pretty fun to be on a motorcycle. “You can’t have this kind of fun in New York,” says Sunny. At the border, we file in by gender. “I hate these Pakistani motherfuckers,” says Sunny, “always with the ‘ladies and gentlemen.’ ” We go through separate metal detectors, then he goes to the men’s bleachers and I go to the women’s. Our two sets of Pakistani bleachers face two sets of Indian bleachers. A road runs between our two bleachers. It continues into the Indian area through twin gates, one with the Pakistani crescent and star, the other with the Indian flag. As Indians walk along the road to their bleachers, many of them wave to the men on Pakistan’s side. The Pakistani men wave back. Each side blares contemporary pop recordings of national anthems and patriotic songs. Our song goes something like, “Pakistan, Pakistan, Pakistan-I-Pakistan.” On the Indian side, men and women sit together, and a big crowd is dancing in the middle of the road. On our side, we stay in our seats.

While each crowd sings its song, flag-bearers come running down the road, ceremonially waving the banner at their counterpart on the other side. Our slightly chubby Pakistani flag-bearer passes his flag off to another person and leads the Pakistani men in the chant, “Pakistan Zindabad,” aka “Pakistan! Live Long!” On our set of bleachers, most women have a beleaguered and depressed quality. They are barely clapping. Few are chanting. But behind me, one small group of three Western-dressed young women shout the chants at the top of their lungs. The other women look at them quizzically. At one point, the pep guy comes over to the women’s side and apologizes for ignoring us. The music stops. Soldiers in plumed headdresses come out onto matching balconies on India’s side and Pakistan’s side. They issue prolonged, threatening cries that last about 45 seconds each. Soldiers open the gates, and two sets of guards march up to the border to face their opposites. They goose-step and make exaggerated arm movements in highly choreographed patterns. They punch their chests and point their forearms. Some of their head and arm movements are so precise, it’s almost like they’re vogueing. The crowd goes wild. After they finish, the chubby flag bearer does a joking version of the goose step towards the Indian guards. We all file out. Small boys and girls do the goose step.

Sunny takes me back to the book fair. I stay for a few hours. There are books about Pakistani history, Robert Smithson, queer sensibilities in art and theater, and pilates. The fair hired a children’s entertainer in an eight-foot inflatable Raggedy Andy suit. He comes up and stares at me while I’m eating a sandwich. I say, “Assalam alaikum.” It’s muffled but I think he says, “Walaykum salam.” Ahmad arrives after a few hours. He’s basically a consultant, so he picks up an academic book called Consulting Demons, about the evils of his profession. Then he drives me home. Heavy rain has knocked out my electricity. I use an emergency light to walk up stairs, brush my teeth, and go to bed.

In bed, think about the day. I was too trusting to take motorbike ride with a stranger. Why did I do that?

1. My loneliness has made me needy. This has thrown off my risk assessment skills. 2. There’s a surreal quality to being here when you’re not local. Everything seems like a dream or a play. You don’t quite believe any of it is really happening. 3. Being here at all feels like a big risk. Now that I’ve successfully taken the plunge, I am overconfident. 4. I need as many contacts as possible. This makes me excessively open to people.


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Work at home all day. Nadia’s mother has returned from her trip. We try to communicate despite the fact that she speaks no English and I speak no Urdu. I take out my copy of Teach Yourself Urdu in Two Months. We have an exchange about General Shamikebab, the cat. Bil-li is cat. She says, “Shami Master.” Shami is my Master. “Shami Guru,” I say. Shami is my Guru. I instantly feel anxious. Was that joke in poor taste?


Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Before I left New York, I tried to find gay people in Lahore. A woman who goes to my church is a member of SALGA, the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association. I sent her an email. She forwarded it to someone, who posted it on a Yahoo group for Pakistani lesbians. The list’s coordinator, X, emailed me to say she would come from her city to Lahore for a visit. Soon after I arrived, I met Y. She was initially circumspect, but later told me that she too was on the list, and had read my post, but hadn’t decided whether or not to write me. Y is bisexual. She says that gay men are “a dime a dozen” but gay women are more private. Many women on the list are married and quite unhappy about it. Of course there are always some women who make something public and political out of their sexuality. I heard a feminist activist offhandedly distinguish “genuinely productive people” from “mean-spirited lesbians who just criticize other people about how they could do more.”

My post also attracted an email from a 34-year-old woman born in London to Pakistani parents currently living in New York. Marya visited Lahore every winter throughout her childhood. This month she’s returning for the first time in ten years to visit her brother Massoud who recently moved from London with his wife and three children. She arrived yesterday and is now on her way to my place.

Marya and Massoud come up the stairs and see my room. They seem horrified that I am living in student-like digs at this price. Everyone’s always telling me that I could have spent less. Off we go for lunch at the Pancake House. Marya thinks it’s funny that I’m being followed and wants to hear all about it. I’m less eager to talk about it. I’m beginning to develop an ulcer from constantly distrusting everyone I meet.

We drive to LUMS. In the campus library, Marya whispers excitedly, “Have you met anyone who is family [queer] here?” I mention that X might come to visit. I don’t mention Y, who seems closeted.

We drive to HSBC to cash travelers checks. On the way we pass a huge billboard for Coke, and Marya asks if there is a Coke boycott because Coke plants in India divert water in a way that deprives villages. Massoud has no knowledge of this boycott catching on in Pakistan, but he mentions that there is widespread refusal to drink Pepsi. Some people here say that the Jews own Pepsi and the profits go to Israel. “Pepsi” is said to stand for “Penny Every Penny Saves Israel.” “It’s a good thing you’re not Jewish,” says Marya. Other billboards advertise small businesses facilitating visas for study in the U.K. or Australia. “It’s an easy exit [visa]” says Massoud. “It’s used as a pretext. “Once you’re in England, you can open a bank account, get residency, and do something else.”

We go home to Massoud’s house and meet his wife and kids. Their daughter is 13, and their two sons are 11 and 5. They are pretty cute. I can’t remember the last time I ate a meal in a proper family environment. No one I know has kids. At lunch the conversation runs to history tests and soccer practice. The elder boy refers disparagingly to his new school as the “School of Unnecessary Knowledge.” He says that things were done better “in my country.” Marya asks him what country that is. “Controversial question,” she allows. After a pause, he frowns and says “England.” We look at a small collection of family photos in a glass display case. Apparently Massoud’s wife went to hear a sheikh who said that family photos are un-Islamic and keep angels away. When she came home she immediately took down many large photos from the wall. “Now maybe the angels will come here, you see,” says Massoud with a big smile on his face. He obviously thinks this is ridiculous.

Marya is a chain-smoker. After lunch we go out on a balcony so she can have a smoke. We exchange relationship histories. Ours are pretty similar, except that I’m bisexual and she’s lesbian. She tells me that her loves had “destroyed” her. She asks if I’m in love with anyone. I’m not. She tells me that she is unrequitedly in love with a woman, a woman from Lahore in fact, from a family where three out of four sisters are gay. Marya dated the woman in New York for five months, until the woman left her. She doesn’t see why she should have to change her feelings now. I tell her that I have paralyzing doubts about lesbian relationships. Does the sex always die? Has it ever lasted for anyone, ever? Marya is much more optimistic than I am, but even she experiences uncertainty. (“I really don’t want to be an old maid,” she says.) In the meantime, she’s consumed by thoughts of this woman. She keeps a collection of Rumi’s poems next to her bed.

We’re lounging around her bedroom when she stops suddenly. “HAVE YOU SEEN THE DANCING?” she whispers. She bursts into laughter and falls down on the bed.

I ask Marya why her brother moved his family to Lahore. They thought it important that their children feel a connection to Pakistan. (Later I will learn the acronyms A.B.C.D., American Born Confused Desi, and B.B.C.D., British Born Confused Desi.) Apparently anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise in London; Marya says that the climate was very different when she grew up there in the 1980s. Massoud and his wife worried about their kids growing up in an overly politicized or antagonistic environment. Their daughter was becoming reclusive; they thought she might do better around a large group of cousins.

Suddenly everyone comes out onto the balcony in a hubbub to bring us inside. It turns out that “the bearded guy,” the kids’ religion tutor, has arrived for their daily Quranic memorization lesson. He must not see a woman smoking a cigarette.

I leave in a rickshaw to go meet a retired military officer and poet. Mahmood comes to greet me outside his home in Army Flats. He has a shock of white hair, dark skin, and pale eyes. He dresses like Gore Vidal or Ted Kennedy. He is secular, but studies classical Punjabi and Persian poetry, most of which is religious. For most of his life he was a Communist.

Mahmood has a very calm demeanor. First, he describes the literary languages of the region, and of Sufi and Sikh poetry. Then, he listens carefully to my description of my work. Finally, he gives me thoughtful and helpful suggestions. His recommendations include George Bernard Shaw, William James, the Sufi Ibn Arabi, and Sikh guru Baba Naanak. I feel like a cretin sitting next to him.

Mahmood says, “You don’t understand what it’s like to lose your faith here. In the West, you’ve been living alongside secular culture for 500 years. That’s not the case here. For us, when it happens, it’s devastating.”


Thursday, March 1, 2007

Ahmad picks me up from my house to go to lunch. He says that on Monday he is going to Faisalabad for the day to consult at a textile factory that’s going through hard times. He invites me to join him.

His friend Zafir and my friend Marya join us for lunch. Zafir splits his time between Lahore and Sialkot, where his father runs a large sporting goods company. Zafir, 23, manufactures cricket bats. He’s also a published poet who writes in English. Zafir’s brand built a social networking site for cricket players. I text Marya and tell her to meet us at Subway. On the drive over, Zafir gets his two cents in about the origins of Islamic extremism. He proposes “1400-year cycles” leading to inquisitions in every faith. He questions why some Gospels and not others were canonized. Muslims believe that the Gospel writers changed Jesus’ words.

“You are a Christian?” asks Zafir. Many people ask me this question. Almost everyone I meet asks me this question. I say that it’s complicated, yes and no, I attend services and do Bible study at a Methodist church and participate in the life of the congregation, but my beliefs . . . it’s complicated. I want to be a Christian. I’m probably a bad Christian. Maybe I’m just a cultural Christian. I’m definitely uncertain about whether I believe in God or not. I believe different things on different days.

I had assumed that Ahmad and Zafir were secular since they wear Western clothes, but they’re not. They both pray five times a day and fast during Ramadan. They are very insistent that I interview scholars and public figures with different interpretations than that of the conservative religious parties. They seem to feel that Islam has been one of the many victims of September 11. Ahmad recommends that I speak with Javed Ghamidi, an ex-Jama’at member, author, former member of the government’s Council on Islamic Ideology, and host of a popular TV show. Ghamidi opposed the Hudud Ordinance. They also recommend Zakir Naik, an Indian Muslim personality on the Islamic cable channel Peace TV. Station promos show Naik in a business suit, wearing a modest beard and a small white skullcap, walking in slow motion with a determined and focused look on his face. He addresses large, rapt audiences on questions from voice level to diet to democracy. He is also featured in a debate show named “Crossfire,” promoted by a strange, aggressive ad where TVs mounted on wooden logs smash into each other.

At Subway, Marya is waiting for us. We get food and sit down to eat. The discussion covers journalism, Musharraf’s memoir, press freedom. The press here is relatively free but I haven’t seen anything on the relationship between Pakistan’s military intelligence agencies and the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. ISI agents beat up the New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall for looking into it. Zafir says something vague about the New York Times being a Jewish newspaper, but then adds, “Yes, well, it’s clear that something is very, very wrong.”

We drive to a bookstore. Marya and I buy Sufi poetry. Ahmad buys an Urdu-English dictionary for an English friend. Then we all drive back to my house. We have more discussion of religion in the car. Ahmad says that “believing in consequences is rational” because it’s part of “rationalizing” your life. It’s part of making your life make sense to you. “There’s almost no crime in Saudi Arabia,” says Zafir. Marya prefers the individual relationship to God that she finds in Sufi poetry. Ahmad is not terribly forthcoming but says, “We live in a very confused way here, you see. VERY confused.” He says that Islam is the last faith where a large number of practitioners in the present day still accept that religion is a public commitment involving explicit communal obedience to sacred law. A lot of people want to retain the idea that religion makes public demands, that it’s not just a private experience. “If it’s just a side thing, what’s the point of that?” he says. “What about the stoning of adulterers? You can’t defend that?” asks Marya incredulously. Ahmad describes, without endorsing, the idea that publicly displayed adultery be punished in public, on the grounds that the public display undermines the family. “If you keep your adultery hidden, it doesn’t need to be punished in the human, social context. You’ll be punished in the afterlife.” I can’t figure out if he believes this or not. It may just be an intellectual exercise. We’re listening to the radio. Marya asks whether American music is popular here. Apparently the recent pop stuff has been too stupid for anyone to take. They find hip-hop disappointing too, except for Kanye West. I mention that West recorded my favorite pop Christian song ever, a remark greeted by total silence until Marya chimes in, “ ‘Jesus Walks,’ great song.” She pauses. “Mos Def has converted to Islam, right?” she asks. “I think he has.”

They drop Marya and me at my house. She and I pour some apple juice and take it out onto the porch outside my kitchen. We discuss our respective religious leanings. Marya explains that Sufism is about developing “a lover relationship” with God. In her experience, more orthodox Muslims see someone like her as inferior, because she’s gay and because she practices this “heretical” version of Islam. “Sufis weren’t allowed into the mosques,” she says. A lot of educated, affluent people seem to prefer mysticism. Nadia also opposes organized religion because of the potential for abuse and distortion. Syncretism seems to be popular with this group as well. Someone at my church said that he thinks Christianity is like yoga. Apparently there are dozens of yogic practices, each suited to a different personality type. Christianity, he says, corresponds to one in which practitioners contemplate to life and philosophy of a saint. “I love Jesus!” says Marya out of the blue. “Jesus is considered an honorary Sufi.” She seems inspired by “what happened after he died,” his resurrection from the dead and ascension to heaven. I’ve never really believed in that.

I used to joke that I was religious without being spiritual. Meaning that I prefer empty rituals and sentimental stories to actual engagement with the divine. I don’t make that joke anymore because I’m increasingly aware of just how accurate it is. I don’t necessarily like all the people at my church, but somehow the shared culture—music, architecture, ritual, scriptures, prayers—makes us all behave in a slightly different way. It’s like a form of emotional software. It gets installed at an early age and then has a power that you can’t really change. All I have to do is recall a Christian phrase and it works wonders on me. When I start to fight with my mother, I use “honor thy mother and thy father” to control my emotions. When I get scared here, I meditate on the phrase “in Christ there is no East or West.” It’s from Paul, and there’s also a John Fahey song by that title. I could use secular language to the same ends, but it wouldn’t be as effective. But I only try to apply a few of the teachings. I ignore the vast majority of them.

Last year I helped with the Good Friday service at my church. There was no denying the humor of actors practicing lines and blocking a Crucifixion play. It was like a lost Christopher Guest movie. But I was still overwhelmed by the story of how the empire, the temple, and all of Jesus’ disciples collectively betrayed him. We used the tenebrae service, a very old form, maybe even pre-Christian. At the beginning, twelve altar candles light the church. While the story is read and acted out, one candle is put out after each act of betrayal, until the church is dark.

During the service, we sang “Were You There?” a classic American hymn:


Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

O-o-o-o, sometimes it causes me to tremble.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?


The implicit answer is, Yes, I was there. And I did nothing. I would be embarrassed to explain how much this song means to me. I have downloaded versions by Jessye Norman, Jim Nabors, Paul Robeson, Roy Acuff, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. Marya would probably relate, but someone else would probably listen to it with disbelief. I can imagine Ahmad asking, “So why did you do nothing? What kind of loser are you?”

Marya goes home for a family dinner. After she leaves, I feel distracted. I fail to read Sufi poetry, fail to write up my notes, fail to read Pakistani history. The last thing I need right now is a crush and a bunch of distracting fantasies. I go downstairs to make dinner. In the living room, Nadia is supine, exhausted from work. She’s watching Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants with Shami on her belly.