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Everyday Is Like Christmas in Rawalpindi

By Adele Barker

Photo credit: Adele Barker

In an odd way, every day is like Christmas around here in Rawalpindi. The lights we put up once a year in the States are part of my everyday landscape in Pakistan. Red, blue, yellow and green lights are festooned outside the enormous wedding halls that dot the landscape of life here. Weddings are very very big, three-day affairs over here, draining families of their savings and quite possibly Pakistan of its electricity grid. No expense is spared either on the part of the family or on the part of the people who operate the wedding halls. At night, coming back from Islamabad, sometimes I look through the haze of traffic and see the blinking lights decorating the wedding halls, announcing yet another Pakistani wedding! It’s just another day of Christmas.

This year, according the lunar calendar, the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed falls on Christmas Eve. There is a little village that has gotten subsumed into the larger city where I live. Here, the villagers go wild with lights in honor of the prophet. Each night, new lights are strung until, the night before the prophet’s birth, the entire village erupts in a brilliant blaze of art in lights. Color coordinated arches, side streets ablaze in a riot of different colors, a blue light street, a purple light street. Last night, some friends took me to see how the show for the prophet was progressing. The fish wallahs were still cleaning fish, brought in from the Indus yesterday, in their stores while the electric light wallahs were suspended over the streets on ladders like the lights they were hanging.

Rawalpindi, the city in which I live, was founded under the British Raj as a vantage point that would allow them easy access into Kashmir and Afghanistan. We are very very close to both borders. In fact, the famous Kashmir Highway begins winding into the hills not far from where I live. Quite apart from the fact that we are only twenty miles from the capital, the city of Rawalpindi is a very conservative one. Very few foreigners live here. I have yet to see one.

In the cacophony of the crowds that line these streets on a Saturday, giving new meaning to the concept of Saturday shopping, I threaded my way between cars over to a bookstore to pick up a book I had ordered. Strangers came up to me and wished me Merry Christmas. And when I went inside the bookstore to pick up my book, the man who always waits on me told me to wait a minute and then emerged out of the back room several minutes later with a Christmas present for me. My Urdu tutor last week had a look at my diminishing wardrobe, took me to her neighborhood cloth shop, bought a bunch of material, and took me next door to her tailor where she proceeded to design a dress for me. Two women in burqas smiled at me with their eyes as the tailor took my measurements.

“This is for you,” said Bushra, my tutor. “Merry Christmas.”

This year, the holidays of our two different cultures converge. Its lessons quietly bespeak the peace of the season that is getting drowned out in so much political rhetoric in the U.S. I get asked about it from time to time, but surprisingly not as much as you would think. There is quite enough, thank you, for Pakistanis to think about over here without involving themselves in the craziness of eight thousand miles away.

As Trump and others rail on, fanning the flames of Islamophobia in the U.S., I move through a culture here—be it on campus or on the streets, be it the capital or at the fruit carts in Rawalpindi—where people look up, wish me Merry Christmas in broken English, and acknowledge in deeply moving ways the meaning of this holiday to me.


About the Author

Adele Barker, who was awarded a UCross Fellowship for her work on Not Quite Paradise, is the author and editor of five books on Russian literature and culture. She has taught at the universities of Arizona and Washington. She received a Fulbright Senior Scholar grant to teach and write in Sri Lanka.