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Remembering My Sojourn in Pakistan

By Adele Barker

Rawal Lake Park
Rawal Lake Park. Photo credits: Adele Barker

It was time to go home. I left Pakistan on February 5 only hours before my visa had expired and winged my way to Paris to see friends for five days before heading back to the U.S. I had mixed feelings about leaving. The pull of family, friends, and the deeply familiar drew me home. But I was leaving a country that has, on an almost daily basis, never failed over the past year to astonish me.

Looking back on the past five months, I think I can reasonably claim two victories: one, I managed to cross the streets around here every day without getting run over; and two, I managed to escape the literally hundreds of hawks that circled the hostel where I lived, suspiciously eyeing me every evening as possible carrion.

Those things I can count as victories. Other things I am less sure of.

Maybe it was because I was foreign, maybe it was simply that I was not family that the girls I taught dared to tell me their stories. There was the girl who dreamed of differential equations but who was forced to study in the English department because, as her father had said, “Girls don’t do math.” Others were there to study because their parents told them it would increase their chances for a husband from the upper class. Others dreamed of having a job of their own but were prohibited from doing so, not only by their fathers but also by their fiancés. “We’ve never done it any other way in our family,” one girl told me. “No woman has ever worked. And I must obey my father.” Others dreamed of medical college but couldn’t get in and got “dumped” into the department where I taught.  

Sometimes I thought I was beating my head against a wall. “Why do you give us so many stories about sex?” some of the girls asked me. Actually, I didn’t know I had. “We don’t talk about these things in Pakistan, madam.” And what about love in Chekov’s immortal story “Lady with a Pet Dog?” Most thought it was a story about two people who sinned, and not about life and all its complexities. As I stood in front of that class, I knew I was up against Islam, hundreds of years of deeply rooted village life, centuries-old family traditions, and women’s place in the order of things in this part of the world.

“What will you miss most?” my girls asked me. “Besides us?”

“Life on the street,” I answered. 

Fatima Jinnah Women University
Fatima Jinnah Women University

Life on the street. I would walk down the street to my local fruit seller who proffered grapes and apples from Iran, and I would pass Prado SUVs ferrying Pakistan’s wealthy for whom shopping was nothing less than a national obsession. There was upscale shopping that rivaled Paris and New York, houses so large they took up entire city blocks—and often with no one living in them except the guards and the cleaning women as the owners cavorted in the UK or the U.S. Under the billboards, groups of men and women converged around a cart of used clothing brought in from Afghanistan where a used winter jacket from the U.S. via U.S. troops could be bought for under $2.00. A man selling oranges from Sarkot pushed a flatbed cart up the street. At the light at the chowk, gypsy children with unwashed hair moved between carts, tapping on car windows asking for money. In the evening, the drummers assembled along the sidewalks in saffron and yellow performance garb waiting to be hired out for one of the hundreds of weddings—another national industry—that would take place that night. I would head up the side street to the accompaniment of the cawing of thousands of crows and hawks circling (me?) for their evening feed and the sound of the evening call to prayer. The fires would be lit under the cauldrons, the men beginning to cook the evening rice and dhal for those who wanted it. My fruit seller called me over, cut an apple or a guava for me, told me to try it and then put a couple of extra in my bag. “It is for your luck, madam,” he always said to me.

It was exhilarating, fascinating and confounding. But life here could also turn on a dime, and you couldn’t really live here without understanding that. Alongside life on the street was the omnipresence of something much less interesting—the men in khaki uniforms, the military, the young boys with rifles, the armed convoys, the barricades, the checkpoints that framed everything else that was considered normal.

I used to call life over there and in the U.S. “post 9/11.” No one there called it that anymore. Embassy personnel referred to it as “Post-Benghazi.” For Pakistanis, we now live in a world “Post Peshawar” (the gunning down of the school children at a military academy in Peshawar in December 2014). The new norm there was always “post” whatever the latest horror.

“This is your moon shot, guys,” I told my class. “You’ve got so many different kinds of people here, so many languages, so many ethnicities; if you can make this country work with all this diversity, you will be a model for the rest of the world. This is huge.”

“Yes, Madam,” they said.

I didn’t always know what was behind the deep and genuine courtesy of the “Yes, Madam,” but I think I know this: loosen some of those binds that tie these girls and gradually other kinds of changes will come into effect as well.

This is a complicated and compelling part of the world—one that I think would take several lifetimes and infinite pairs of eyes to wrap one’s mind around.


About the Author 

Adele Barker is a Professor of Russian at the University of Arizona and the author of Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka (Beacon, 2010). She recently returned from a year teaching in Pakistan and is currently at work on a book on teaching post 9/11 in Pakistan